Engineering Art


I spent a week working in a team of three civil engineers and two sculptors to develop a finished piece of artwork. The event, titled 'Engineering Art', was part of the University of Edinburgh's 'Innovative Learning Week' and aimed to encourage interaction between engineering and art students.

Differences in thinking became apparent from the beginning of the week. After some brief discussion about the ideas that each team member was interested in, we vaguely came to the decision that we would try to develop a form which appeared fragile but was structurally sound. After the short chat the sculptors were enthusiastic about starting to experiment straight away, and brushed off any concerns about what we were trying to achieve. Having been immersed in an engineering degree for the previous two and a half years, this seemed slightly premature to me; we hadn't even sketched up some general concepts or planned more than 20 minutes into the future. One sculptor was very keen to use plaster in some way, the other had a variety of plans for string. We set out shopping for any materials which we felt related to false fragility, mainly fabric, string and various thicknesses and lengths of modelling wire. Upon returning we immediately started to pour plaster into some existing moulds to 'just see' how things would turn out.

Throughout the week many of the major shifts in concept were brought about by the sculptors. While I did follow and have opinions on all the creative issues, I was left feeling slightly frustrated at how slow I was in being spontaneous when compared to the art students. Throughout my engineering study I have been taught how to design and control risk in engineering projects in order to improve safety, reduce cost and ensure a functional end product. Despite the importance of these factors, I feel that prioritising them very early on in a project can limit the potential for innovative and original ideas to be explored. During the initial design phase, there is value in experimentation as a primary activity, with project constraints being evaluated as a secondary process. This became especially apparent while producing our final pieces, the ideas for which had required active experimentation to fully form, and which we were uncertain would satisfy our self-imposed brief of 'false fragility' until the late stages of their design.

The week's collaboration drew obvious parallels with the union (or traditionally the lack of one) between architects and structural engineers. There were however no serious clashes between the two disciplines, possibly as a result of the engineers having expressed an implicit interest in creative design by signing up for the event. The week highlighted the merits of reckless experimentation in reaching original solutions, a concept which all engineers should appreciate.

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