The world has tuned in to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to witness the highest caliber of athletics. However, unbeknownst to most spectators, this is also an occasion to see first-rate structural engineering: A lot of the action will be taking place against a backdrop of stadia and venues made possible by the work of schlaich bergermann partner (sbp).
Engineer Knut Stockhusen is a partner and managing director at sbp, and was paramount in establishing sbp’s presence in Brazil. In April, he came to visit Princeton to give a lecture and workshop on deployable roof structures, and I was lucky enough to sit down with him for a conversation.
Before talking about Brazil, I first wanted to hear more about schlaich bergermann partner.
Olek Niewiarowski: You’re always traveling and working around the world, but you’re based in Stuttgart, Germany. How is that like?
Knut Stockhusen: Our HQ is in Stuttgart, that’s where a lot of our activities are coordinated. But we have five other offices: Berlin, where Mike Schlaich is professor, New York, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and we opened an office in Paris just this year. We noticed over the last few years that while it’s good to have one “base camp”, we still need several locations where we can work and live. We can’t travel all the time, and it is paramount to adjust to the local culture and the way of doing things.
What is special about Stuttgart?
There are many things special about Stuttgart. Stuttgart is the place where a lot of technology and engineering got established. In our field, Fritz Leonhardt started his incredible career in Stuttgart. He had a very progressive approach and revolutionized the whole engineering world with principles that are still commonly used all around the world. For example, look at the Stuttgart Television Tower: It was the first of its kind in the world and it got “exported” everywhere. This environment was a very powerful base for new stars to rise, such as Jörg Schlaich. He started to develop new approaches to cable structure design for bridges and for other tensile structures. With the solution for the Olympic stadium in Munich, he not only developed, but also revolutionized that field. The influence of Jörg Schlaich on engineers in Stuttgart is quite visible. Of course, everyone develops their own approach, but it is very interesting to have several important players in such proximity. Sometimes it leads to competition, but in most cases it is just nice to be enveloped by such excellence.
It sounds like the “DNA” of the firm crystallized early with all these lightweight structures. On a day to day basis, how do you keep the SBP style alive?
In a way, it’s a certain engineering philosophy that we pursue. Its seeds came from Jörg Schlaich and Rudolf Bergermann, in the constant pursuit of an incredible variety of international projects and technologies, where the limits of feasibility were pushed constantly.
Those values were successfully inherited, enhanced and carried into a new era by the next generation of partners and the whole team. The will to explore the unexplored, to venture into new fields, to never hesitate, and to keep on developing, evolving and sometimes revolutionizing in a structural sense. That is something we live by on a day to day basis.
Can you give an example of how you live by this philosophy?
We are active in most of the fields of structural engineering. If you look at one of these, the field of stadium and large-span roof design, we have designed something like 50 stadiums around the world. Now if you compare the solutions, you will recognize that none looks like the other. Of course, every time we start a new project, we base our approach on what we learned before, but we yearn to develop something new. We try to find solutions that suit to the architectural layout, the environment of the city, and to the capabilities of the region. We try to form new creative teams, develop something that was never done before.
So maybe we can talk more about stadiums: What was your most challenging stadium project?
In terms of the combination of environment, cultural surroundings, and the technical capabilities of the region, the projects that we did in New Delhi were probably the most demanding. We designed stadiums for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and started our operations there in 2006. For the main stadium, the job was to develop a new spectator approach and roof structure. Since the existing tiers were in a state of conservation that was not so, let’s say, promising, we decided to do an independently-supported roof. Due to the setup there and the decisions taken by the authorities, that project really demanded a lot from our team, from myself, and the office. For example, they allowed the contractors to fabricate on site. So they first started to build fabrication plants on site, and the steel suppliers would just drop off the steel plates on site and the contractor would start to weld everything there.
We had to involve our fabrication experts to, for example, guide the contractor to build covered work areas to get out of the sunlight, because you have extreme heat and your steel distorts and all your lengths get messed up. It turned out well at the end of the day, but it was really challenging.
It sounds like you must be really aware of how things get done on the ground before you can even start designing?
Our approach is to design with excellence, perfection and uniqueness, but always considering the fact that someone is going to build what we’re designing.
We analyze the possible setup of the contractors, we consider their capabilities and who will actually do the work at the end of the day. We try to be involved in these projects from the first sketch to completion, in order to guide the client, who maybe has never done this before. To achieve the best setup for fabrication and construction, we have experts in all fabrication issues who survey and guide fabrication. And in this particular case in India, we had to establish a full-time supervision team on site, which was not planned for in the beginning. They actually taught unskilled workers on site how to weld and then test the welds, in order to guarantee that the whole structure is capable of 50-year lifetime.
So when you talk about supervision, how does a contractor in India respond to that? Is that something they are used to, or was it a new thing for them?
The detailed involvement of a structural designer was an extremely new experience for them. And it is actually new at many projects. Our philosophy of not “letting go” of a project once the design is finished may create a certain friction in the beginning. However, in all the cases that we’ve been involved, it turned out to be a truly successful collaboration in which the site teams appreciated our input. You need time to get used to each other, and that demands a lot from both sides.
We are engineers who roam the world looking for beautiful projects. We cannot expect and we don’t want to expect that people get used to our culture. Maybe to our culture of building, the culture of construction, and certain safety standards, yes, but it is our duty to get used to the circumstances of a particular region and to rules of engagement.
This can be very exciting and at the same time very demanding, but it’s also rewarding because you get to know the culture, you get to know the people. Everyone in the company who gets to travel to sites establishes strong friendships that add to the success of schlaich bergermann partner.
SBP’s Sao Paulo office opened before the 2014 World Cup. What was your role in that again?
We opened the office in 2007 and I almost moved there because I traveled every third week or so. Together with our Brazilian director Miriam Sayeg, who is crucial to the success of the establishment, I manage the South American activities. You need someone who is engaged in the local community and environment, especially in a country like Brazil, someone from Brazil who knows their way around in terms of communication and culture and networking.
Do you have a favorite stadium in Brazil? Is there one we should look out for during the Games?
Normally, the Olympics are held in one city – it’s called “Rio 2016” for a reason – so it becomes its own brand. The interesting thing about Rio 2016 is that some events will take place in other cities in some of the stadiums built for the World Cup, because they are there! For example, the Arena da Amazônia in Manaus will host soccer.
Which stadium do I find most interesting? From an emotional and personal point of view, I would say Maracanã Stadium. It’s the one that you dream of as a stadium designer (and a soccer fan) and it’s a spectacular project in a very spectacular environment.
But the Arena da Amazônia is also a very special project for me. It took a great deal of personal effort to engage in the environment and to realize that project in such a special and remote city. I believe the design is really incredible: it’s a very beautiful project – in a wonderful part of our planet.
Everyone is worried about the rainforest and that is also very important for us, so it’s also interesting to mention that no tree had to be cut down to build the stadium. But in particular, no one would have taken notice of this region during these mega events if there wasn’t a venue there for certain games. So now, like in the World Cup, billions of people will look at that region and maybe start thinking.
For the people living there it is very important to be part of the whole show. That’s already a good reason for having the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus.
So does that tie into the social responsibility that sbp advertises? It sounds like you can make stadium building a sustainable venture.
Yes, in a way it is part of our philosophy that we try to reflect in the way we design. We design structures that can engage the local capabilities and work force to create jobs. On the other hand, the main motivation to work in the field of lightweight structures and intelligent structural systems is to try to avoid wasting resources. Sustainability is a very big term that everyone is talking about. What is really sustainable?
The material that is not used is the most sustainable material, hence we try to limit the use of natural resources as much as possible. By doing that, the beautiful lightness of our design becomes visible.
Not everyone has to love it, but in our eyes, the lightness and elegance of slenderness motivates us to come back day after day.
We were running out of time, but I still had two very important questions for Knut.
What question do you never get asked, but would like to be asked?
Ah yes, that is the most important question. The question would be, “Are you happy with what you do?” Yes, I’m very happy. We are happy with the work that we do; it’s a very profound work. There is also this sense of evolution and development that is the foundation of our great team. It inspires and keeps people in the office. They see that they can contribute and have a significant impact.
What is your advice to students interested in lightweight structures?
Author: Olek Niewiarowski
All images courtesy of Schlaich Bergermann Partner.