News from
Office of Communications
22 Chambers St.
Princeton, New Jersey 08542
Telephone 609-258-3601; Fax 609-258-1301

For immediate release: March 17, 2003
Contact: Ruta Smithson (609) 258-3763 or rutas@princeton.edu

Artistry of Swiss engineering revealed in exhibition celebrating
most innovative structural designers of the 20th Century

"The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy" at the Princeton University Art Museum

Exhibition dates: March 8-June 15, 2003

PRINCETON -- From New York's George Washington Bridge to Boston's new Bunker Hill Bridge, some of the country's most acclaimed structures are the products of Swiss design. This spring, the Princeton University Art Museum will celebrate the contributions of a group of highly influential Swiss engineers who are widely recognized as the most innovative structural designers of the 20th century in "The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy" (March 8-June 15, 2003).

Swiss Legacy is the first exhibition to focus on the work of Robert Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Heinz Isler, and Christian Menn; as well as on Wilhelm Ritter and Pierre Lardy, the exemplary teachers who educated them at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. These designers are acclaimed by structural engineers, artists, and architects alike for revolutionizing the field -- creating new forms that technically and aesthetically extend the boundaries -- and in the process setting in motion the modern relationship between form and function.

"Rarely does a new art form emerge to challenge old ideas about artistic boundaries. This has happened in our present age, with the birth of the art of structural engineering," said David P. Billington, Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering and director of the Program in Architecture and Engineering at Princeton University, who for the past 25 years has conducted research at the ETH and is the organizing force behind the exhibition and the accompanying publication. Swiss Legacy illustrates how this new art form is a powerful expression of our culture, and demonstrates why aesthetics is an essential part of the education of engineers."

Swiss Legacy is also a tribute to Professor Billington, who pioneered the integration of the liberal arts into engineering education during his 45 years of teaching at Princeton University, developing highly acclaimed courses that place the discipline within scientific, historic, and artistic contexts. The exhibition explores the educational philosophy of the ETH, with its focus on aesthetics, and how it can serve as a model for invigorating American engineering education and the practice of structural engineering in the United States.

"Engineers and especially academics often argue that aesthetics are not part of their profession. If you want beauty, hire an architect or, more radically, a sculptor. One major objective of education in engineering should be to encourage students to see, accept, and begin to use that elemental sense of aesthetics," said Billington.

"The Princeton University Art Museum is proud to honor Professor Billington and the artistic tradition of these preeminent structural designers," said Museum Director Susan M. Taylor. "By examining the merits of their work as artists and the educational philosophy behind this practice, Swiss Legacy exemplifies a key focus of the museum's mission -- to push the limits of the definition of art and to incorporate design investigation into its program."

Exhibition Details

Through representations of original drawings as well as photographs, archival material, paintings, three-dimensional models, an interactive stereoscopic photography display, and CD-ROM presentation, Swiss Legacy will explore the critical role aesthetics play in structural design. This includes some of these designers' most widely recognized and acclaimed projects:

  • the George Washington, Bayonne, Bronx-Whitestone and Verrazano-Narrows bridges by Ammann -- designer of many of America's greatest long-span steel bridges;
  • the recently constructed Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston -- the widest cable-stayed bridge in the United States, as well as the Felsenau and Sunniberg bridges in Switzerland by Menn -- renowned for his exploration of the technical and aesthetic possibilities of prestressed concrete among other materials;
  • the Schwandbach, Salginatobel, and Vessy bridges in Switzerland by Maillart -- recognized for his innovative use of reinforced concrete to create radical new forms;
  • Isler's graceful concrete shells -- more than 1,000 designed in the last 45 years primarily in Switzerland, including the Heimberg Tennis Center and Grötzingen Open Air Theater.

Swiss Legacy is an example of the innovative and multidisciplinary exhibitions organized by university museums. The exhibition was produced by Professor Billington, Susan Taylor, members of the museum staff, and undergraduate and graduate students, who traveled to Switzerland to photograph structures and conduct research, scoured New York City archives, drafted drawings for use in the accompanying publication, and applied AutoCAD and other technical programs to design and construct detailed models.

The Art of Engineering

In the exhibition, Billington proposes structural engineering at its best as a new art form, which has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, when iron became a dominant building material for bridges and other structures. This effort required a radically reconceptualized design approach that did not fit within the ancient canons of architecture. By the mid-19th century, many engineering schools had been founded and the modern engineering profession established. The best 19th-century structural engineers came to see how industrialized iron and then steel could make possible unprecedented forms for bridges, towers, and vaults. In the 20th century, this exploration continued with the advancement of new materials such as reinforced and then prestressed concrete.

Billington defines structural engineering as parallel to but independent of architecture in the same way that photography, which he refers to as the other new art form of the 19th century, is parallel to but independent of painting. "Architects often speak of their art as that of the conductor who leads a variety of specialists to bring a great symphony to life," says Billington. "Structural engineers, as one specialty for a complex building, are also like the soloists who perform a complex work on their own without other instruments or even a conductor."

Publication and Accompanying Events

An accompanying publication by Professor Billington features more than 200 illustrations. A landmark contribution to structural engineering scholarship, it is the first comprehensive publication to review the work of these six engineers and the educational tradition from which they emerged. Billington has written extensively about each of the engineers featured in the exhibition, including the book "Robert Maillart's Bridges," winner of the Dexter Prize from the Society of History and Technology. Exemplifying Billington's multidisciplinary approach, Jameson W. Doig, professor of Politics and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, also contributed to the publication. The book, hardcover at $55 and softcover at $35, may be ordered directly from the museum's publications office, through the museum's web site, or bought at the museum shop. Extensive educational programming, such as lectures and bridge-building workshops for children, are planned to complement the exhibition.

Related Events

Lecture, March 8, 2003
McCosh 50, 4:30 p.m.
A conversation with David P. Billington

Symposium, May 2 and 3, 2003
"Teaching and Scholarship in the Grand Tradition of Modern Engineering," a symposium in honor of David P. Billington at 75 and his 45 years of teaching at Princeton University

# # #

The Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums. Its collection features more than 60,000 works ranging from ancient to contemporary art, and concentrating geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, China, the United States, and Latin America, with particular strengths in Chinese and pre-Columbian art. Founded in 1882, the museum supports and enhances the University's mission of teaching, research, and service through the study, preservation, conservation, exhibition, and development of its collections. Through direct and sustained access to original works of art, and by collaborating with faculty, students, and staff, the museum contributes to the development of critical thinking and visual literacy at Princeton. As one of the richest cultural resources in the state of New Jersey, the museum also has a commitment to serve the local community, the region, and beyond.

The museum is open to the public without charge. Highlights tours of the collection are given every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Monday and major holidays. The museum is located in the center of the Princeton University campus, next to Prospect House and Gardens. Due to construction, visitors should use the staff entrance on the west side of the building, across the green from Dod Hall. For further information, please call (609) 258-3788, or visit the museum's Web site at www.princetonartmuseum.org.