How to describe the esthetics of structural surfaces? (1/2)

It has been said that the work of Frei Otto (Germany, 1912-2015) has a sculptural quality to it [1]. Although Frei Otto’s parents were sculptors, he insisted that the shapes he produced were rigidly grounded in the laws of physics [1], and was very reluctant to describe their aesthetic value. This observation hints at the questions that this paper starts to address, namely how can one describe the aesthetics of a curved structural surface?

Structural Membrane Form Finding Study – Image Credit Frei Otto

It is observed that structural aesthetic critique is a little practiced discipline. In engineering education, students generally are not encouraged to express their emotions about the built environment, and are not frequently encouraged to develop an enthusiasm for visual experiences [2]. Beauty seems to engineers such a vague concept, hard to define accurately to others.

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Our ultimate top 20 book list for 2016

As the holidays are approaching and as your loved ones – yet again – run out of inspiration for your holiday gift… the Form Finding Lab comes to the rescue. We present you a list of our favorite books on engineering, architecture and anything in between.

Happy holidays,

The Form Finding Lab.


Compiled by Tim Michiels, with contributions of Sigrid Adriaenssens, Victor Charpentier, Demi Fang, Andrew Rock and Olek Niewiarowski

What I am thinking: the engineer and architect Marc Mimram

Marc Mimram is a celebrated French engineer and architect with projects in France and around the globe. He generously shares with us his ideas on bridge design in conversation with PhD candidate Victor Charpentier.

Victor Charpentier (VC): Marc Mimram, you are both an architect and engineer. Yet you have said that when you are given a project, the greater part of the inspiration for the initial spark comes from a third field, which is study of the landscape and geography. Can you explain why this is so important to you and how this affects your designs?

Marc Mimram (MM): Each project should be specific. It has to be depending of the situation where it take place.

To become a coherent project, it has to be related to the geography, the horizon. It should express the relation to the ground, to the sky, to the landscape considered as a geography informed by history.

In that case the structural project can take roots in the reality and forget the abstract equation of strength of materials to express gravity, the movement of forces, the movement of light; being part of the situation, part of the world, belonging to the site.

Whong Sheng Da Dao Bridge in Sino Singapour, Tainjin Eco-City (China). (Image provided by Marc Mimram)

Advanced technologies have allowed structural form finding to become an integral part of many recent design projects. How do you add your personal, creative touch to a process that can become largely computational? What are your thoughts on the role of this method for the future of engineering design?

MM: The process of computational form finding is a method of optimization and as such, it follows the development of the project. It is obviously important to develop the project with frugality but the rational process of development can be plural and the choice has to be related to the specific situation, taking into account the landscape, the topography but also the economical situation, the knowledge, the development of local craftsmanship, the local materials.

Liu Shu footbrigde in the City of Yangzhou with a variable width of 3 to 5.7 m (Image provided by  Marc Mimram)

In the past decade, many of your larger bridge projects have been built in Asia or in North Africa in part because of more local design freedom. In your opinion, are there too many inhibitions in the field of construction in western countries? What could be improved to bring creativity and exploration back to construction while at the same time maintaining the high standards of safety?

Continue reading “What I am thinking: the engineer and architect Marc Mimram”