What I am Thinking: Thorsten Helbig on Curiosity and Collaboration in Engineering

Despite my arriving twenty minutes early to Knippers Helbig’s office in New York’s financial district on a brisk Friday afternoon, I am warmly welcomed at the door by an engineer whose work I probably just interrupted. As he goes to summon a man around the corner, I peek at the office space: not enormous, but still spacious and pleasant, giving no sign of being too small for the number of engineers at work. Thorsten Helbig, principal of the Germany-based engineering firm Knippers Helbig (KH), emerges immediately, equally warm and welcoming as he ushers me into the office’s conference room. The room opens up on two sides to the office space, and Helbig goes to shut both doors; despite the auditory privacy, the work carried out in this room is always transparent: one wall of the conference is a glass window, allowing any passersby to glimpse at our meeting through the satisfyingly enormous letters “KH” staining the glass orange.

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The Knippers Helbig office space at 75 Broad St, New York. © Knippers Helbig

It is perhaps no coincidence that the office space articulates such clear architectural considerations. Helbig’s approach towards meshing engineering expertise with architects immediately becomes our first and most fruitful point of discussion. “In a relationship between engineer and architect, I think what is most important is that there is mutual respect and a communication,” Helbig asserts. “Ideally, the communication starts very early in the design process.” In many projects, he explains, Knippers Helbig is involved from the very beginning—ideally, at the competition stage—to the final completion and execution of the project. From the start, every decision made by the architects in organizing the program leads to consequences that require the engineers’ input regarding limitations such as soil conditions, column spacing, and slab systems. Inevitably, the engineers put forth decisions and recommendations that influence the project’s appearance, but Helbig underlines that “we as engineers should not try to be architects, but rather maintain an engineering perspective.” Projects can benefit so much more from an engineer’s engineering contribution, Helbig points out. “At the same time,” Helbig qualifies, “I expect that everybody at the table has a qualified opinion. As an engineer, we can question some of the architect’s decisions, which can—in the best case—make the architecture even better.” Helbig says that while there exists the notion of signature architects, he doesn’t believe in “signature engineering.” We can look at some buildings and often guess at the architect, but Helbig doesn’t find it “right” to be able to do the same with the engineers of building structures, even if the engineers’ contribution can be clearly read in many building types. “As an engineer, I want to be able to support architecture. We start with the same open-minded approach in every collaboration, but it consequently leads to different results when we work with Massimiliano Fuksas, Renzo Piano or Liz Diller because their individual architectural approaches require individual engineering solutions. I see us as collaborators in exploring the inherent potential of the architectural intention – and sometimes innovatively engineered parts act as catalysts for specific architectural expressions.”

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