Engineers’ wizardry is beyond question, but they still suffer from a cultural cringe when it comes to the question of creativity. Luckily, Chris Wise met someone who explained the whole thing

Off to Arup’s London Design Week event, where Antony Gormley talks about Exposure, his 60-tonne latticework figure in the Netherlands. As he speaks, the sculpture is settling down for another night perched on its little spit of land surrounded by water. It reflects what its creator calls “the body as an energy system”. It is big, 26m tall, even though squatting down, but tiny when seen from the nearest town of Lelystad. Nevertheless, one unimpressed local accuses it of blocking his view. The Dutch, prosaically, call the sculpture “De Poepende Man”, the Pooping Man, but as Gormley says, “Having a crap is one of the most relaxing and intimate moments one has in the world.”

I ask him about differences between his poetic language as an artist and our language as engineers. He says, well, engineers are somehow repressed if they persist in speaking in a way ordinary people can’t understand. He then quotes “polyhedral and multi-directional matrices” at me to show that, anyway, he’s learned our lingo. This of course gets a laugh from the engineers in the room who can spot a home truth but still dearly love it when anyone talks dirty to them.

As I leave, Arup shyly hands out a book of its greatest hits 2010. Later, I sit reading it from a Gormley-esque position thinking that, surely, engineers do not need to hitch themselves to the coat-tails of an artist, no matter how wonderful, to justify their existence. I thought I knew Arup well, but the work of just one year is staggering in its global relevance and technical audacity. Putting aside my fondness for the sculptor and his work, and for Arup, I wonder if the engineer’s decision to ask the artist to showcase its contribution to human creativity didn’t betray just a tiny, but significant, lack of confidence in itself. At this critical time, why is the engineer’s technological light still afraid to come out from beneath a polyhedral and multi-directional Pooping Man?

A partial answer may have been given a few days earlier at Imperial College. At a conference on the education of engineering leaders, I was on a panel of industrialists tasked with telling the academics how life really is. The last time I did this at Imperial, I had to wear a book inside my coat to avoid being stabbed by the professors. Up stepped Sir Peter Williams, chairman of the National Physical Laboratory and Royal Societician. A former chairman of the UK’s Engineering and Technology Board, he was just back from the UN, where he helped review the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He mentioned a building crammed full of planners, politicians and scientists, but said simply: “The engineers were notable by their absence.” Perhaps, he mused, they had something more important to do?

Then I meet Richard Miller from the newly minted Olin College in Massachusetts. Olin has set itself the goal of producing humanised engineers, albeit generously funded by an arms magnate. In correspondence afterwards, Miller said engineers sometimes don’t engage because their education misses a couple of rather fundamental bits of the creative jigsaw. He says: innovation = feasibility + viability + desirability. Engineering education usually misses viability (the business case) and desirability (the emotional proposition, which is based in the liberal arts), and concentrates on feasibility, usually technical. Which is what the engineers did on the Gormley sculpture.

One last reflection on the Arup lecture room: that same basement in the mid-eighties was the home of the DEC 10, a massive computer that analysed the most complex engineering projects of the age. The great machine’s human interface was a mountain of computer printout that young engineers would sift through, looking for the 16-digit number that would make the difference between triumph and disaster. The DEC 10 has been replaced by a funky lecture room in which Arup’s human interface has become Antony Gormley and, dare I say it, his Pooping Man. Who says engineers don’t have a sense of humour?

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering