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.

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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.

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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?

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What I am Thinking: Architectural Fantasies with Mister Mourão

While at the 2016 International Conference on Structures and Architecture, we had the opportunity to meet Mister Mourão, a highly creative mind who describes himself as “an architect turned illustrator with a tendency for obsessive drawing.” In this interview, he shares his beginnings in drawing, his productive workflow, and his inspiration (or lack thereof).

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When, what, how and why did you start drawing?

Drawing was always one of my favourite things to do. There’s something in the effort, dedication and loneliness of the work that resonates with me.

One of my first memories is being on my parents’ living room floor drawing, so I guess I started pretty early… And for some unknown reason I was obsessed with horses. That’s basically what I drew from 4 until 18 years old. Horses!

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What was your formal training and how does it relate to your work now?

I studied and worked as an architect so my lexicon is deeply rooted in the city, structures and urban environments.

Basically, I learned how to design and build through architecture, and now I can distort, exaggerate and repeat all those architectural elements that make up a building or a city and rearrange them in my drawings.

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What is your process?  

First I have to confess something about myself. I (obviously) love to draw but I’m quite lazy and restless, and it’s very hard for me to focus.

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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.”

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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: Biologist-Turned-Architect Doris Kim Sung Makes Buildings Breathe

During my Art Residency  in Bellagio, Italy, I had the privilege of interviewing USC Architecture Professor and Princeton alumna Doris Kim Sung. In her work, Doris interprets architecture as an extension of the body and explores how buildings can passively adapt to their environment through self-ventilation and shading by using smart materials and design. 

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Russell Fortmeyer, Doris Kim Sung and Sigrid Adriaenssens in conversation in Bellagio, Italy.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: What are the research questions that your designs address?

Doris Kim Sung: Can the geometry or the unit design of a smart material such as thermobimetal affect the architectural performance of a larger tessellated surface intended to shade, ventilate, stiffen, or propel? 

What is “unplugged” architecture? Can you exemplify that concept with one of your projects?

This reference from rock or pop music means without electronic amplification or disconnected from the world of gadgets. I have a deep-seated interest in finding solutions that don’t require added electrical energy or computer controls. For this reason, I have been working with smart materials such as thermobimetal, a material that reacts to heat (it curls), and developing for building use (for auto shading and ventilation in “Bloom”) and construction techniques (for one-hand/one-person assembly systems). Because the use of the material does not require energy, it is a “passive” type of system, but the responsive nature of the material to the sun and ambient temperature make it surprisingly active.

What can you tell us about your latest innovative project?

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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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What I am Thinking: Structural Designer Of The Millennium Wheel And Role Model Jane Wernick

In the coming decade, the United States will have to add 250 000 civil engineers to its workforce in addition to replacing those who will retire. However, only 12.2% of the current American civil engineers are female. These statistics indicate the need to encourage young people, especially from underrepresented groups in civil engineering, to pursue engineering opportunities in their education.  As a PhD student in the 90’s I met the structural designer Jane Wernick at the IASS conference in Denmark. She offered a positive influence on my educational and career plans. A few years later I ended up working with her at her own engineering consulting office Jane Wernick Associates (London, UK). Jane believes that structural engineers can have a great impact on the built environment and hence the quality of life of people, yet they have to remember that they have a huge responsibility to the planet and its sustainability. She states that her biggest achievements are “.. my involvement in the Millenium Wheel and starting my own practice”[1].

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