I studied for my Civil Engineering degree a long time ago and did a sandwich degree at what was an old school polytechnic. When I was on my year in industry I was dragged along (slightly reluctantly) to a technical meeting at Warwick University to listen to a chap called Heinz Isler.
Up until this point I'd never heard of Heinz Isler, but after sitting through his lecture for an hour I was utterly spellbound listening to his thought process and the shear creativity and quite frankly maverick nature of how he achieved his engineering structural forms. This was the first time I'd seen structural engineering really become exciting and not be slavish to design codes or afraid of being bold. This was my first time being inspired by a structural engineer and feeling that even if I lived for 12 lifetimes I could never be as good as this guy in front of me... and actually not feeling in the least bit bad about it, the guy before me was an utter genius.
Creative Commons Image courtesy of Trevor.Patt on Flickr.
After graduation I went to work for a lightweight structures company and when I eventually (and reluctantly) left so that I could gain some traditional engineering experience I was given a book called 'An Engineer Imagines' all about Peter Rice. Again to my shame, this was the first time I'd heard about Peter Rice and reading through his autobiography I was in awe at how far ahead of his time he was, refusing to take the tried and tested path and instead developing innovative solutions.
Unfortunately both of these engineering heroes of mine are now dead... with my only engineering hero Frei Otto, remaining alive. There are lots of good engineers out there and I'm sure that they inspire and lead their respective fields.... and whilst I have a few academics who I'm in awe of in my research field, I can't say that I have any engineering heroes of the same ilk as Isler, Rice, and Otto left anymore.
Perhaps that golden age of engineering has gone? Where new techniques could be implemented and tested through modelling? But I would have hoped that with the power behind geometrical computational models nowadays that perhaps this technology and power could be combined with the artisan skills of the past to create some genuinely beautiful and inspiring structures.
If Isler can create massive spanning thin concrete shells through freezing his wife's bed linen, then surely we could be doing something even more mindblowing with the computational power that is now at our fingertips...
Who are the engineering heroes of tomorrow I wonder? Will they have the same passion and ability as those from the past or will they be limited as the world becomes a far more commercial place and less experimental? Are the talented engineers being driven out of the technical aspects of the design process to become managers and is this damaging the market?