Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry

June 12, 2008

Next year will see the 175th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The event will not include any major scholarly reappraisal of the profession's history (neither did the 150th), for it can be hard to unweave a generic thread concerning the identity of the architect from the fabric of activities that occupy most of architectural history. Andrew Saint's long-awaited book comes close to achieving an historical inquiry into the nature of the profession over a period from about 1650, focused mainly on France, Britain and America, and making it, as one would expect from this author, immensely readable.

As the title indicates, it enters the web of building culture through the demarcation dispute between the architect and the structural engineer. This was a major issue in the long history of the modern movement, when architects such as Le Corbusier used examples of engineering as a stick to beat their own people out of sloppy thinking and designing, and materialist historians hoped to chart the line of development in Darwinian fashion as a journey towards perfect efficiency and beauty. The roots are traced back to the political and administrative exigencies of Louis XIV's France, from which French architects derived a sympathy for structure that was envied in Britain. The polemical guesswork of earlier historians can now be replaced by detailed knowledge and judgment, and Saint synthesises the work of many specialist scholars while adding original research of his own. It is a long book, and it is the unhurried journey rather than the arrival that matters. Perhaps the territory is too vast to be taken in with a single view, and certainly Saint is too honest a scholar to force it into too tight a mould despite giving satisfying closure to an argument that finished some while ago.

Therefore while one might complain of too much material, there is, at the same time, not enough. The structural engineer is only one of many siblings in this family. Some of the others carry the name of engineer; some are called constructors and fabricators and have their place in the story. The youngest are known as M&E - mechanical and electrical - and are already taking their poor inheritance and setting out to conquer the overheating and resource-depleted world. Of those non-professional cousins, the building trade, we hear only occasionally. We meet some who carry the title of professor, being specialists in pedagogy who may try to soothe or exacerbate the rivalry as they choose. All deserve their own place at the crowded table, as happens in real life, but we need a series of books before we can understand all the interrelationships.

Begun when Saint took up his first permanent academic post at Cambridge, the book speaks mainly on behalf of the engineering interest as a way of redressing the balance of history. On a deeper level, it seems to be an attempt to find out what an architect is by describing what he is not. As such, it offers a valuable if partial tool for reflection about this unstable identity. There is cause for concern, both inside the academy and outside, that the architect's primacy frequently consists of little more than a brittle shell of media representation, based on an image quality of a building that may not go very deep.

Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry

By Andrew Saint
Yale University Press
480pp
£45.00
ISBN 9780300124439
Published 1 May 2008

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