Lace rod networks at the intersection of engineering and art

How can art inspire engineering systems? We have been working with bobbin lace and textile artists to find out. Our work is exhibited at the 2021 Joint Mathematics Meetings. Interlaced bigons from Lauren Dreier on Vimeo. Inspired by a traditional bobbin lace pattern, ‘torchon ground’, elastic strips are interlaced to create a gradient of out-of-plane behavior. The key structural element is a bigon which consists … Continue reading Lace rod networks at the intersection of engineering and art

Extraordinary Processes: Extraordinary Beds

At Princeton, our students are taking final exams now. In the course that the visual artist Joe Scanlan and I teach, VIS418/CEE418 Extraordinary Processes, students were tasked this semester with designing and building beds that are equally inspired by their creativity and the structural principles of engineering. What you might find interesting is that, for their final exam, the students were required to spend the … Continue reading Extraordinary Processes: Extraordinary Beds

What I am thinking: bio-inspired engineer and artist Bill Washabaugh

Bill Washabaugh is an artist, aerospace engineer, roboticist, designer, and maker. Bill is the founder of Hypersonic Engineering & Design, a firm in NYC working at the intersection of technology and art. He has designed flight control software for Boeing, music instruments for Bjork, and a massive stage show for U2. Trained as an Aerospace and Mechanical Engineer, he pushes the boundaries of the art … Continue reading What I am thinking: bio-inspired engineer and artist Bill Washabaugh

Reflecting on the Future of Design at the IABSE conference

On Saturday, April 29, the IABSE Future of Design 2017 conference was held in New York City. The Form Finding Lab was well represented, with Victor Charpentier in the organization, Professor Adriaenssens as a speaker and alumnus Professor Ted Segal (Hofstra University) leading a design workshop. Demi Fang ’17 summarized the main ideas of the speakers and panelists:

The Future of Design NYC conference kicked off with a vibrant set of “10 + 10 Talks,” in which structural engineers paired up with professionals in a field slightly different from their own. Each pair gave a joint presentation on their thoughts on the “future of design.”

Throughout the five presentations and the Q&A that followed, several recurring themes unfolded.

Technology can be leveraged as a tool to enhance, rather than compete with, the creative human process of design.

Glenn Bell (SGH) and Antonio Rodriguez (LERA) began with a presentation titled “Disruptive Influences as Opportunities, Not Threats.” Rodriguez gave a personal anecdote of a mentor who once warned him against entering the engineering field with the argument that computers would soon take over engineers’ work. Rodriguez explained how he has found that some engineering decisions do, and always will, require human judgment. That’s not to say that technology should be considered a competitor; rather, technology can play a key role in enhancing those creative processes that are best executed by humans.

Antonio Rodriguez of LERA on distinguishing the roles of technology and humans in the future of design.

Bell quoted Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering from a talk at the 2015 IStructE conference in Singapore: “Which bits of the engineer’s life are really human and which should we let go to machines?” Many presenters touched on the importance of this distinction, especially with the rise of digital drawing tools that easily allow for technology to “take over” the design process. Rodriguez made the distinction by identifying the processes at which computers do best, such as repetitive tasks and optimum searches. The use of these technologies “free designers to do what they do best: solving human problems.” He went on to conclude that the “future of design depends on how technology is used to enhance people’s skills, facilitate collaboration, and improve relationships.”

This approach was whole-heartedly echoed in the following presentations. Eric Long (SOM) cited Frei Otto’s scientific explorations of soap film as an example of how “technology inspires design.” As a firsthand example, he cited SOM’s partnership with Altair in topology optimization; fittingly, his presentation partner was Luca Frattari of Altair, who emphasized the fundamental role of these technologies as tools, or “a complicated pencil.” Sigrid Adriaenssens (Princeton University) presented some of her engineering projects such as Dutch Maritime Museum courtyard roof and the Verviers Passerelle from her practicing days in the Belgian structural engineering firm Ney and Partners. With a nod to David Billington’s principles on structural art, she used these examples to note how “using optimization tools efficiently can allow for efficient, economic, and elegant systems.” Her presentation partner, Bill Washabaugh (Hypersonic), also shared stunning sculptures that utilized engineering technology to not overshadow but recreate motions of nature, such as the rippling reflection of a tree over water, the murmuring of a sea anemone, or the flight of a flock of birds.

With increased levels of collaboration in the design process, broadness and diversity in education can help prepare engineers well for future challenges.

Bell pointed out that the drive towards resource efficiency and sustainability has led to the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration in the design process. He described his perception of the structural engineer as a T-section, with the “flange representing a broadness in education, and the stem representing a fundamental expertise in structures.” As one of the few educators presenting, Adriaenssens answered one of the last questions squeezed into the end of the Q&A session: what educational approaches should be taken to prepare the next generation for the future challenges of design, which differ greatly to the challenges of the older generation? Adriaenssens shared her conviction in bringing students with different backgrounds into the field of engineering in order to supply a diverse workforce to face these interdisciplinary challenges. “Many of the students I advise are excellent in other fields – they are superb athletes, musicians, or dancers. Asking an 18-year-old to focus on one particular field limits their potential.” She mentions courses at Princeton that bridge engineering with other fields such as the arts, explaining that “aside from the traditional engineering courses, we also need courses that focus on interdisciplinary training,” supporting Bell’s previous statements.

Bill Washabaugh (left) and Sigrid Adriaenssens present their projects that utilize technology as an advanced tool for imitating and perpetuating the systems and aesthetics of nature.

Guy Nordenson (Princeton University) reinforced his colleague’s comments with statements on a more specific type of diversity: “I think Sigrid is a manifestation of where we’ve come and where we’re going,” not just with her more creative and innovative approach to engineering, but also her presence as a female in the field. “Looking out at the audience, it’s great to see that there are a lot more women in the field than when Glenn and I were students. We can do a lot to improve diversity in education starting as early as high school.” Continue reading “Reflecting on the Future of Design at the IABSE conference”

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, … Continue reading Our ultimate top 20 book list for 2016

What I am thinking: from Stuttgart to Rio 2016 SBP’s stadium designer Knut Stockhusen


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Rio de Janeiro, with Stadium Maracanã in the distance. © Marcus Bredt.

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.

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Rio de Janeiro Olympic Live Site (2016).© Dhani Borges

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?

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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.”

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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