Who owns bridge design

Billed as a heavyweight clash between titans of the bridge fraternity, the recent debate, Who owns bridge design?, hosted by the Architecture Centre at Bristol’s Arnolfini seemed to promise fisticuffs.

In reality, with long-time collaborators Ian Firth of Flint & Neill and Jim Eyre of Wilkinson Eyre, the event became a bout of gentle point scoring between engineers and architects.

The engineers took to the floor first, with Ian making some cogent points, including “you can build a bridge without an architect but you certainly can’t build it without an engineer”, as well as pointing out that, certainly for longer bridges, the architectural involvement may amount to less than 5% of the design effort.  Jim’s riposte showed a number of examples of engineer-designed bridges that were, frankly, downright ugly, although he reluctantly admitted that a limited number of engineers (Robert Maillart, Jurg Conzett) had delivered elegant solutions to the problem.  In support, engineering historian Julia Elton discussed the huge number of historic bridges that had had no architectural input and were still standing, whilst design critic Hugh Pearman enthused about recent examples where architectural determination had delivered something extraordinary (the Sackler Crossing at Kew; the private bridge at the Wormsley Estate for Garsington Opera).

Themes that emerged included the differing education approaches between architects and engineers, with the sense that architecture schools, with regular ‘crits’ and a focus on communicating design ideas, gave architects a better grounding for promoting their ideas in public and through the media, whilst engineers tended to focus on calculations and analysis, so turning out individuals that are happier to slink into the background clutching their calculators.  Over-simplistic perhaps, and indeed one or two institutions (such as the School of Architecture and Engineering in Bath) were noted for their broader approach.  Both combatants identified that the question of ‘ownership’ had really only emerged in the last twenty years, coincident perhaps with the rise of the celebrity culture.  Suddenly there is a need to attach a single name to each shiny, new, iconic edifice, and inevitably it’s the architect that is most willing to step forward and say “Mine!” Until, of course, something goes wrong, at which point it very definitely becomes the engineer’s problem…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conclusion was that close collaboration generates the most rational and most elegant (and incidentally, usually the most cost-effective) solutions.  A stimulating and enjoyable evening in the company of design professionals passionate about good design – with points evenly shared at the final bell.

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