January 29, 2003: Features

Professor David Billington ’50 wants engineers to think about aesthetics. (Frank Wojciechowski)

This replication of Isler’s tennis center, roughly 2.5 ft. by 4 ft., was created by graduate student Maria Janaro in much the same way Isler designed his domed structures. She hung a thin, plaster-coated cloth upside-down from scaffolding she designed. After the plaster dried, she turned it upright to create the domed shape.

Elizabeth Grau ’03 created this 4-ft. model of Maillart’s Salginatobel Bridge. The original spans Switzerland’s mountainous terrain. Joseph Vocaturo, lab manager for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, oversaw the material selection, design, and construction work for Grau’s, White’s, and Clark’s models.

Courtney Clark ’03 says that one of the challenges in replicating Menn’s Felsenau Bridge was choosing the right materials, which had to be not only durable, but also would not cause the bridge to sag under its own weight. Her 7-ft. model is made from machineable plastice with an aluminum honeycomb base.

The Art of Engineering

New art exhibition brings together form, function, and structure

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96

What is beautiful about the George Washington Bridge? To those not under the influence of Professor David Billington ’50, the answer might be its impressive appearance alone: the way its long deck emerges from the Palisades, passes through latticed-steel towers and under the graceful bow of the massive cable, and disappears into the flat buildings of Manhattan’s northern tip.

Photo: Josh White ’04 used a laser cutter to cut a series of flat, two-dimensional pieces from plexiglass for the truss work of the nearly 10-ft.-long model of the George Washington Bridge. “When you look at the George Washington or Bayone Bridges, they’re so big that you don’t get a sense of how delicate they actually are,” says White. “When you scale it down, you start to realize just how thin the decks get.”

And that’s fine. Billington wants you – expects you – to be drawn, at first, to its monumental form. But now, consider the thinness of the deck of the bridge in relation to the bridge’s long span. Next, look at its structure. The cable-suspension design — cables supported by two massive steel towers — is not only beautiful, but was the most efficient and inexpensive way to build the bridge during the Great Depression.

“Art in engineering is not just gorgeous form,” Billington says. Indeed, anyone who has ever taken one of Billington’s classes can recite his requirements for an aesthetic structure: the “three E’s” of elegance, efficiency, and economy, and the “three S’s,” symbolic, scientific, and social.

“Bridges are clean, pure structures, and the public thinks that if an engineer builds one, it will be dry,” says Billington. Getting the “public” – be it engineering students, liberal arts majors taking his class to satisfy a lab requirement, or the community at large – to realize that engineering structures have a historical design relevance all their own has been the backbone of Billington’s writing and teaching since he came back to Princeton as a professor in 1960.

The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy, an exhibition at the Princeton Art Museum from March 8 through June 15, will bring together for the first time the work of six influential Swiss engineers – including George Washington Bridge engineer Othmar Ammann – whose bridges and domes embody Billington’s interpretation of aesthetics in engineering: structures built to be not only pleasing, at first glance, to the eye, but economically suitable to their environments, and, most important, structurally sound. The works of Ammann, Heinz Isler, Christian Menn, Robert Maillart, Willhelm Ritter, and Pierre Lardy will be represented in a collection of photographs, interactive computer models, and scale models built by Princeton engineering students.

Engineering models as a major exhibit in the Princeton Art Museum? After all, this exhibit follows directly on the heels of last fall’s Cézanne watercolors. Can models of bridges compare in importance to works of a great painter?

“But Cézanne was nothing like Rembrandt,” Billington counters. “How do you explain what’s beautiful?”

Studying “something beautiful”

In 1961, as a young associate professor in the engineering department, Billington was chosen to teach a class on structures in engineering to Princeton’s graduate architecture students. The architects, however, quickly grew bored by the technical formulas and clamored to “study something beautiful,” Billington recalls. They showed him pictures of thin, concrete bridges sweeping across ravines and through the mountains of the Swiss countryside – the work of Swiss engineer Robert Maillart. Billington began to study Maillart, whose designs had been analyzed from an architectural basis but never from an engineering basis.

“We all have some aesthetic sensitivity and respond to beauty in various forms,” Billington says. “But then I wanted to see if this was good engineering. And I realized that Maillart was the best technical engineer.”

His research on Maillart led him to the other Swiss engineers featured in the Art Museum exhibition who had studied along with Maillart at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich: Ammann, Isler, and Menn, and two teachers at the school, Ritter and Lardy. While Billington already has mounted six exhibitions on one or more of these engineers, he has not done so since 1980, and this is the first time all six will be linked to show how the ideas and methods of the teachers inspired their students’ great works.

Books and photos of the works of the teachers, Ritter and Lardy, along with six volumes of Isler’s meticulously drawn notes from Lardy’s classes, will be on display. But the eight models built by Princeton students are the centerpiece of the exhibit: Maillart’s Salginatobel and Vesy Bridges; Amman’s familiar Bayonne and George Washington Bridges; Isler’s Heimberg Tennis Center and Grotzingen Open Air Theater; and Menn’s Felsenau and Sunniberg Bridges.

Making the models

When I look at the models, the term ‘student’ is misleading,” says Becky Sender, associate director of the Princeton Art Museum and the exhibit’s coordinator. “They are so professionally constructed, from the materials chosen to the fabrication methods.”

Josh White ’04, Courtney Clark ’03, Elizabeth Grau ’03, and graduate student Maria Janaro were hired by Billington to start work on their models over the summer, when they put in 40-hour weeks using a computer program to turn blueprints into three-dimensional computer models, experimenting with materials, and creating prototypes. Throughout the fall, they logged in another 10 hours each week on their scale replicas of the original structures.

“In architecture courses, a lot of things you model for studio are made in a few days with wood and glue. They’re not as finished or elegant because they’re there for you to use while you talk, to express your ideas. Then they fall apart,” says Clark, who is replicating Christian Menn’s bridges. “I’ve never done anything this rigorous. To make the models look museum-class took a lot of effort.”

For the Art Museum, the exhibition is a way to reach out to a different clientele. The E-quad is a long walk from the museum, and one doesn’t normally lump together engineers and art historians. Sender hopes to draw in not only engineers and architects, but anyone interested in artistic forms or building, including kids. (The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation will conduct a Saturday-morning family program where children and adults can build their own bridges.) In addition, Isler and Menn will give special lectures at the museum — as will Billington, beginning with an Alumni Day lecture February 22 at 9:15 a.m.

It’s appropriate that the exhibition highlights the influence of teachers on their renowned students; for Billington, everything goes back to the teaching. Though the exhibition – marking not only his 75th birthday but 45 years at Princeton, including four as an undergraduate – is a milestone for Billington’s scholarship, he says that the most exciting aspect of the project has been working with the students and seeing the effort they put into their models. His mission, he says, is prompting students who will go out into the world as engineers to think about the aesthetics inherent in structural design.

“What’s a teacher for?” Billington says. “First, to educate people to follow in your profession. But then to educate everyone. Humanists – art historians, poets, historians – have always understood this, and have had popular courses because of this.”

Though almost one-quarter of all Princeton undergraduates take one of Billington’s classes, he says, “I’d be happy if we taught everyone.”

Kathryn Beaumont ’96 is a PAW staff writer.


For information about events related to the models, visit http://alumni.princeton.edu/Events/AlumniDay.asp and www.princetonartmuseum.org.


Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary