Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

After the revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the National Art Schools to be built on the site of a country club, a move to enrage wealthy capitalists.  The post-embargo material shortage resulted in the curved thin shell brick shell of the School of Modern Dance, designed by Ricardo Porro.  This shell reflected the sensuality Castro thought to be unique to the Cuban spirit. While four other … Continue reading Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

What I am Thinking: Reflective Practitioner and Educator Eric Hines

“The two worlds of practice and teaching are hard on each other. To live between them is kind of hard because you get pulled in both directions and don’t get a lot of sympathy from either side. I’ve learned how to be flexible and strong in certain ways by running between the two,” Prof. Hines says. “Going into it, I had more literal expectations: ‘let’s do some research, let’s advance the state of the art, let’s teach the students about our buildings’. But the good stuff is a level down from that: it’s about the people, how we understand things, how we do our work, how we fail and recover, how we succeed, and how we support each other.”

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Tufts University Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor of the Practice Eric Hines takes one of his classes on a tour of the building projects his company was working on in Post Office Square. Photo: Tufts University

I first heard of Prof. Eric Hines as a rising sophomore at Princeton working with Prof. Adriaenssens in building on her existing Mechanics of Solids course. At the time, we drew much inspiration from Prof. Hines’s compelling pieces of writing on education and creativity in engineering, such as his series “Principles in Engineering Education” and his essay “Understanding Creativity.”

It is no coincidence that he wrote for and co-edited the Festschrift Billington 2012, a series of essays written in honor of Princeton Civil & Environmental Engineering Department’s Emeritus Professor David Billington; Prof. Hines was a graduate of the Princeton CEE Department himself. It was thus inspirational to meet Prof. Hines last week at Tufts University, where he has taught since 2003. As Professor of Practice in the school’s CEE department, he divides his time between Tufts and the LeMessurier engineering office in Boston.

Being in practice has forced Prof. Hines to think carefully about what he brings to the classroom. He expressed frustration that while the theoretical examples presented in textbooks are useful in helping students grasp concepts, “when you’re working in the real world on design, the real world doesn’t divide itself neatly up into little ideas.” In real problems he encounters in practice, “the ideas are important for understanding, but all these wild things happen: they intersect and pull over on each other, they become complex and even ironic in their intention… In the classroom, I like to have a real example, but the real examples are messy and difficult, and it can be hard to turn them back into theory.”

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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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