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.
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.
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?
MM: High standard of safety are compatible with creativity. What gives more freedom in developing countries is the capacity you have there to invent projects which are out of the classical and already well-known solutions. Too many references, too many regulations and codes embed innovation into a passive attitude.
Codes are understood as being safe manner to reproduce already known solution, instead of that, it should open the process of innovation considering the fantastic development of knowledge and new materials, the present situation of computational fabrication related to calculation, the necessity of considering the limitation of natural resources.
You are an engineer that understands efficient structural design. What is your thought process when you encounter a situation that demands the sacrifice part of the structural efficiency to benefit the overall architectural concept? Do you have a systematic method or would you rather work with your instinct? Can you describe an instance where you had to make this choice?
MM: I cannot make a real distinction between statics and architecture. They are completely linked. Efficiency is not only a matter of ratio, neither weight per surface, nor critical isolated members dimensions.
A coherent process depends of the situation, the local economy, the relation between the costs of materials and the costs of workers, between the capacity of using industrial products and the local knowledges and the capacity of craftsmanship, between the local resources and the importation of materials, between the capacity of prefabrication and the methodologies of lifting and construction.……
The efficiency has not an autonomous meaning related to structural design but has to be understood as a whole especially in developing countries.
The development of computational capacities, not only in the area of calculation but also of production gives a larger scope to rational process of conception, which have to be still rational but including a multiple criteria approach.
Is it important for you to create a “style”?
MM: Architecture has not any relation with style or so call personal writing. This style effect would transform rational and sensitive process of conception into a consumerist process of production, transforming architecture into a generic product instead of being related to the place, to the situation , to the world and the men that are transforming the project into a memory of the shared work.
The project is not a logo, it has always to be specific, generous, open to the world and related to its time.
Infrastructure often has the effect of isolating and dividing communities whereas buildings can be designed to have the opposite effect (i.e. to be open and connecting) for the public space. Do you have any ideas for how to design infrastructure to complement and become a positive, integral part of the public space rather than a deterrent?
MM: Infrastructure has often been considered as a necessary evil. It should be considered as a shared good. Power had been related to building, castle then public buildings. Now the shared place in the city is the public space. The space of everybody, the place of democracy. As such it should be shared with generosity. Bridges are always crossing borders, either historical, geographical or social borders. Sharing a unique geography, infrastructure considered as a public space become a link and a place articulating the local and the distant.
Finally, do you see the advance of self-driving cars as an opportunity to redesign our infrastructure and the public space?
MM: The advance of self-driving cars will be a great opportunity to reconsider infrastructure as public space. I hope it will not consider roads as a project of pipes isolated from the geography, of the topography and solved as a problem of fluid mechanics instead of being part of the landscape.
The Form Finding Lab would like to thank Marc Mimram and his team for this interview and providing the stunning photographs.
Questions by Victor Charpentier. Edits by Tim Michiels.