Heinz Isler by John Chilton
Eladio Dieste by Remo Pedreschi
Peter Rice by André Brown
Given that structural engineering is central to modern architecture, there is a great deal of mileage in exploring the relationships of the two disciplines at their most synergetic. The new series by the Institution of Civil Engineers' publishing arm, Thomas Telford, with "endorsement" by RIBA Publications, examines how a few of the century's most inspired structural engineers worked together with architects on the landmark projects of their age.
Two of the first four volumes cover Anthony Hunt and the late Peter Rice, who devised the supporting skeletons to Britain's distinctive hi-tec building style of the past quarter century, working with such superstar architects as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Nick Grimshaw. The other two volumes, in contrast, are devoted to Heinz Isler of Switzerland and the late Eladio Dieste of Uruguay, who transcended their mechanistic discipline to become structural artists by organically moulding their favourite materials – reinforced concrete and masonry respectively. Further volumes are in the pipeline on Owen Williams, Eduardo Torroja, Félix Candela and Pier Luigi Nervi.
The books are revealing in the way they bring together structural and architectural reasoning and drawings on case-study buildings. The concentration on form-finding rather than number-crunching also makes for readable copy.
On the other hand, the authors are architectural academics, and effectively drag the functional discipline of structural engineering into the more effete architectural camp. The weakness of this process is that a few glossy photos of the newly completed building are taken as mission accomplished. The idea of appraising how the building works in practice never seems to have occurred to the authors.
For instance, the section on the Inmos microprocessing plant in Newport, built in 1982 to designs by Richard Rogers Partnership and Anthony Hunt, concludes with the supremely architectural comment: "Much effort was expended by the Hunt team in the detailing of the structure, which is one of the most elegant they have produced." No mention is made of problems subsequently caused to the highly sensitive clean rooms by the multiple penetrations of the external structural frame through the roof membrane. Similarly, no mention is made of why such an "elegant" design solution was never attempted again for similar plants.
As a functional discipline, engineering has progressed through history by analysing products that have failed. Engineered structures still fail regularly, but these books seem to suggest that progress nowadays is purely through playing along with architects.