CEE New Millennium Colloquium
March 20-21, 2000
Wong Auditorium, Tang Center, MIT Building E51
CEE Designers and The Problem, The Other Problem and The Other Other Problem, a Polemic
RALPH GARETH GRAY
Architect and Structural Engineer
In his Note last spring , Professor Bras says "The overarching question is the nature of engineering education in the future." Surely that is the case, and any answers coming from MIT will be of immense influence on engineer-ing education, all education, all over the world, for a long time to come. If the MIT of 2000 is anything like the MIT I remember of 1955-57, and I think it is, our method will be right, and so will the answers.
Ever since those days I've been involved in the construction industry as a California structural engineer and architect, working on building design. I'm one of that carefree band out there in earthquake country who, with thousands of lives at stake, have to make decisions in the real world with insufficient data, money and time. We do this for sometimes ignorant, in-deed resentful clients, sometimes on jobs to be built by hostile developers (design is front money) and contractors with more lawyers than estimators. I've investigated and helped fix many thousands of units in condos that were going to collapse for sure in a quake (if they didn't burn down first because the required fire protection was Impressionistic). Typically, to make it worse, the exiting was Surrealist. They all had licensed contractors, licensed engineers and licensed architects, plan checks and permits. Most were HUD projects, so they had independent construction observation by independent licensed architects, too.
I've learned a lot about methods of design in civil engineering, and if I add that to the design skills I picked up as a kid in fine art and working (not as a dilettante!) in advertising, writing, window display, music, mural painting and such, surprising patterns emerge. There's a lot in common among these various kinds of design that, abstracted (as I try to do below), is more useful in our present context than one might think, even touching matters of life safety. Thus this paper.
Professor Bras' thoughts moved me, and I would like to quote bits from them as bases for some remarks on design in general. I guess I'm an extremist in my support for what he said, so if there's anything in here that seems negative or critical, it's because I messed up. If this paper comes across as baby stuff, I'm sorry; but just maybe there are a few of you who cut class that day. Maybe sometimes a reminder doesn't hurt. Maybe you've led a more sheltered professional life than I have. I hope so. In the following text, the italicized subheads and quotes are from Professor Bras' Notes. Some of the parenthetical imperatives included below are things a design teacher might say.
Analysis versus synthesis
"our students have lost the ability to synthesize..."
This is The Problem. Why our students? Why in CEE? There are many very splendid movies out there. There are some great ads, marvelous rock music, breathtaking software, and glorious buildings, all newly designed by young designers in different media. Why not CEE? Are they scared off? Are they made to feel like aliens? Does there have to be a counter-culture as-pect to make design of civil works attractive? Probably, but there's more to it.
You're designers. What's so different now?
Maybe it has something to do with tracking in school, back down the line. Some tracking is imposed, and some is self-imposed by the trackee. Some tracking is imposed because of incompetence or boredom or preju-dice on the part of the tracker. I didn't have the least idea what civil engi-neering was until Frank Lloyd Wright told me to go learn it. I mean, bizarre? But design is fun, and design of great big things like bridges and buildings that help people when the stakes are enormous and the requirements are tough, that is really fun. Is that message getting through? Are we ourselves missing doing something, or are we doing something wrong?
Already, in their time (and mine, as their grad student), Professors Wilbur and Norris were conscious of this, The Problem. They saw the growing power of analysis and the increasing prestige of an analytic constituency in academia as seeming to reduce the importance of creativity in engineer-ing.
Professor Wilbur developed and taught an experimental course in de-sign for second year civil students. I believe it was for an urban highway river crossing, including on-ramps, considering impact on local traffic and commerce and so on. (One must look at a lot of context to do good de-sign.) The students didn't yet know how to calculate stresses or specify as-phalt, but it sure didn't matter. I don't think they were even permitted to set up arrays of partial diff equations to optimize fifty alternatives. (There is never enough time.) They just went and designed the thing. (Commit your-self, make it yours, take responsibility, do your best and defend it.) Their work was brilliant, far better than anyone had a right to expect. Alas, the course received no support and died on the vine.
Design consists of both synthesis and analysis, a blend, not one or the other. Analysis is part of design, but only part. (It's a logical impossibility to analyze something that hasn't been designed.) One first models the thing being designed (synthesis) and then tests the model (analysis), makes the adjustments and goes around again. This may run at 10 Hertz or higher, or maybe zero on a bad day. (Negative Hertz on a really bad day.) The last model is the built work, and the last analysis is its performance in service, looked at in a very large context, including ethical principle. The very name, Civil, means service to people and civilization. (Do no harm.)
Professor Bras says, "have lost". He doesn't say "haven't been taught". He's right, so sadly right. This ability was there in the little child to start with. How did it get lost? Maybe it was suppressed? Was it allowed to atrophy?
Let's get more basic. We arrive on this planet equipped with the ability to synthesize and analyze, full-time. Constructing significant form from sensory signals and memories is cognition. It is vital to individual survival, for determination of physical location or identification of danger, for example. Interference with the process is disorienting, crippling and uncomfortable.
Communication of that synthesis involves creation of a physical mes-sage or symbol to stimulate group cognition and construction of organized group response to the danger or whatever. This is, as well, an exercise of tribal self-consciousness and solidarity. It is a process of complex feedback and reassessment, both personal and group. It is fundamental to community survival.
So in part, at least, cognition and communication are hard-wired, very basic stuff. You will note that this is true for most animals (in varying de-grees), not just the human kind. You will also note that individual and group syntheses, cognition, communication and the associated rich feedback loops are the very foundation and nature of art, whether fine, applied or pop, and constitute its source and function. Art in turn is a functional element in forming and maintaining community, not just a decoration or frill, as some would have us believe.
Some individuals have more ability or feel more compelled in cognition and communication than others, some less. Some see more, and some communicate better than others. All of us need support and training to make these processes effective. It's like learning to talk.
For education to impair the function of either cognition or communica-tion is a gross assault on the individual, a betrayal of the community and plain stupid. It is happening in our schools, from elementary on up. It is at least partly responsible for the dearth of engineering designers.
But the children lucky enough to have adequate creative language, music and art classes are learning very important basics that are part of all design. They learn how to make decisions where sufficient constraints are lacking (I'm supposed to draw a tree: where do I start?). They learn how perception and synthesis are full of feedback (That tree trunk is the wrong color, but what is the right color?). They learn how to take responsibility for their very own decisions (Look what I did!) and defend them (I like red leaves). They learn how to take criticism (maybe orange would be better here), how to criticize supportively (You know, if you used a lot of little strokes, some of warm orange shade next to a cool lavender, this area would have more life-what Bonnard would tell a young friend). They learn how to work creatively in a team or alone (Bob, you take three choruses, build it for Ella to scat for three and then we'll ride it out for two). Early art and music and theater classes give experience in understanding complex systems, a fact not often articulated. These are frills? Frills that schools can dump to save money? Waiting until college to learn these things is prepos-terous.
Even knowing this, I almost fell off the chair when, in a video prepared by her kindergarten, I saw my 5 year-old daughter Lizzy, holding up a little painting she'd done, announcing, ex tempore, ad lib and lisping a little, "My art is me".
This is the ethical component of design.
"the engineer solves problems with imagination, creativity and syn-thesis of various sources".
Yes! That's what all designers do. Consider the Hawk's solo on "Body and Soul", the 39 Lincoln Continental convertible, the Ocean Park series, I-280, Unity Temple, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Golden Gate Bridge. All are designed, all are the result of many input data from many sources, all are extremely complex but seem simple, if celestial. All serve us and all have very important meaning for us, our culture and our community.
Civil engineers designed some of those things. They've also done some really dreadful things, as have other designers. Do our future students really know that and how to tell the difference? The other designers mostly get to destroy the bad stuff (Picasso said he dumped 99 out of 100), but our fiascoes are right out there in front of everybody, maybe fatal, as in Turkey and Taiwan and Oakland's Cypress Freeway not long ago.
"We have lost much of the creativity,"
Well, it's safer to be uncreative. You get criticized if you're creative. There's almost an infinity of right answers in any design situation, since there's never enough information or constraints to develop one certain, unique design, and you have limited time and fee. Anyone can ask, "OK, you did it that way, but how come you didn't do it this other way?" Hard to answer, "I flipped a coin." If they'd worried about that, the Athenians would still be doing preliminary sketches of the Parthenon. Some experience in the arts helps a lot here; such criticism goes with the turf. It can hurt a lot, but you have to get used to it.
"Engineering education must seek new balance between analysis and synthesis."
Yes, sir. The proper balance defines good design: a built work rela-tively easy to build, efficient in function, low in cost, safe, visually satisfying and spiritually uplifting, a testament to its time, culture and civilization, like the Golden Gate Bridge.
Reductionism and systems
"The debate between science versus synthesis is related to the contrast between reductionist or system approaches.
This is The Other Problem. Isolating the most effective freebody is a skill learned early on in engineering analysis. One reduces the number of un-known variables by defining a region with the minimum number external influences. As part of the synthesis-analysis cycle, the difficulty is to put the freebodies back together again to form the unified system (rather than a collection of autonomous freebodies) before resuming the design.
One must avoid "suboptimization", that is, perfecting one part of the design by itself. All parts must be brought to the same degree cyclically. The young art student soon learns the dangers of starting at the upper left-hand corner of the painting, perfecting that upper two- or three-inch square and then beginning the next. (That's a very nice cloud there, but it's not in the same world as the grass in the foreground. Your whole palette and pur-pose changed as you struggled down the canvas. You ran out of gas, didn't you?)
Cutting things apart, looking for similarities and differences, is part of the innate cognitive process. That doesn't mean it doesn't need self-control, just like any other human process.
The built work must actually appear to be one thing, not read as twenty-five problems solved in twenty-five different ways. One might even use three variations, but variations on the same theme. "It must have unity", said Aristotle.
The final built work is the sum of a large number of decisions, very large, but finite. Most of them must be made without sufficient information or constraints that would determine a unique, certain answer. Assume there is a very large (almost infinite) number of "right" answers (and a higher order of infinity of wrong ones), any one of which might be the perfect, uniquely right answer at some particular point. Assume the measure of perfection varies discontinuously with time. Then if the decisions made in an uncertain universe have artificial constraints added, the decisions will be easier to make.
This is the source of style and fashion in design. It is not the source of any particular style, but it is the reason to have some style, any style, just so it's consistent. The resulting design given to the builder will be easier to un-derstand and execute because of the increased consistency. Ambiguities will be more easily resolved. Thus: Ionic, Cubist, Dixieland.
Most often there is no defined style to choose a priori. This is the gen-eral case. With the advent of what we call the Modern Era, choices became much more difficult because of the rapid increase in needs, available technologies, expectations and demand, causing expanding areas of practice with multiplication of fields of ever-narrowing specialization and necessary information building up to noise. We are more conscious of it now, but experienced designers have always scanned unresolved variables for common tendencies that could impose a perhaps unique but pervasive set of constraints. It's an immense kick when it hap-pens, another kind of cognition.
Mr. Wright described his approach to architectural design as organic. We had Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, Tuscan--and Prairie Style and then Usonian. One should find repetition of patterns, at whatever scale one might view the built work or attendant drawings. He really did it, too, some times more successfully than others, and as he aged, his disciples did things he wouldn't have. But his organic method was the same thing, scanning to find consistent form, a pervasive style in the given project.
Another example is detailing rebar. On the job at hand, one converges on a set of bar sizes, #3, #4, #7, #11, #18 say, and a module, 3" and its multiples or 4" and its multiples, say, to use throughout. You have more poundage, marginally, but you have lower design, checking, detailing, fabrication, inspection and construction costs and a lot fewer mistakes.
All good designers do this, and have standard details et cetera, so I'm not telling you anything new except, perhaps, that this is precisely the same as going Doric or whatever, an artificial increase of constraints, a style.
"This system develops the professional as a generalist first, then as a spe-cialist."
Right on! Way to go! Learn how the role and responsibility of each member of the design team is relevant, what each member is faced with, the specialists' jargon and methods. Know how to be a sideman and soloist. Learn how to design the whole building, then how to calculate bolt spacing. Learn how to optimize every thing to the same level, starting from the general, proceeding to the specific .
"the first professional degree should be the Masters of Engineering, with the bachelors emphasizing liberal sciences & engineering."
This is essential, but we should remember that to be most effective, the process should start in preschool, and I would continue to urge inclusion of hands-on practice in the arts, whatever one calls it. But MIT (including us old alums) must make sure that the schools insist on it.
If it means that people have to get more training in design to get regis-tered, well, it's damn well about time! Don't get me started. I hate seeing that picture of the pancaked building with dead people in it over and over. It's the same picture, but each time it's a different building in a different country. Did you notice that the building in Norman, Oklahoma, didn't have any full-length top bars in the beams, so no capacity for the slightest load reversal at all? Congratulations, analysts. Just because I'm emphasizing the arts doesn't mean CEE should be part of the entertainment + media + exciting visuals business.
"a call for increased breadth, depth & maturity of the engineer."
Absolutely. Form a consistent ethical basis of service, and justify the social necessity for the discipline and ethical component of professional training. Engineers can not flee from human responsibility any more than artists can. We have remained silent about areas in our responsibility too long. We aren't politicians (or clergy), but decisions should be made using the data we alone have. We should make very sure it's transmitted, forced on decision-makers if need be. We keep too quiet about a lot of stuff to protect the profession, but responsibility to the profession does not transcend responsibility to society.
Relationship w/ industry
"we must also move away from educating engineers who are "thrown over the fence" to practice."
Absolutely. They must not be abandoned just when the degree is in their pocket, nor should they abandon MIT. There must be constant feed-back. Let's start now. How about making that crazy CEE website easier to use?
"We need a new model of collaboration with industrywe have moved away from the concept of design separated from construction, operation & ownership".
This is The Other Other Problem. It's rough, for me, in two ways. I don't like to say it, but in the housing area, we've been too coöperative. We definitely need a new model here, instead of developments featuring plastic-coated urethane foam Ionic columns in loggias of obese oversized tract houses on radioactive sanitary fills and unstable cuts facing PCB-fertilized golf courses for the gated nouveaux. That's a joint effort with our architect friends. The associated constipated streets and freeways, parking catacombs and deserts, freeway-mutilated neighborhoods, paved rivers, still-born bridges, sterile marshes and collapsed overpasses, on these we're prime.
We actually know why these things happen. Why don't we say so as a profession, and louder? Why don't we get together with our architect co-designers and say so as co-professionals, really louder?
Don't answer that question. I'm too sensitive.
The second way it's rough for me is that it brings up something awk-ward, regrettable but very, very important, and sometimes very dangerous, which prevents our serving industry and society well. It, too, is our, and the architects' fault. It's the gulf between us. Don't argue about it. I've taught architects at two major universities as an adjunct lecturer, and I've done a lot of structural consulting. I know it's there. You know it's there. It's like the Bloody Balkans.
The reasons for it and its history are too complex to go into here, but we must do something about it. I have a lot of bones to pick with my archi-tect brothers and sisters. You may have noticed I have the same with respect to my CEE brothers and sisters. The thing is, we both have professional cultures that are similar but different, each including some very good things that the other needs. We need a lot more contact in training and designing together as students, under pressure, "charrette-ing", rather than getting forced into it after we graduate. I'm not berating MIT, both departments were light-years ahead of the other schools when I was here, and I bet they still are. In fact, I took third-year architectural design while I was a grad student in civil here, and I cherish both equally. Professor Norris used to chuckle when I nodded off during Theory of Elasticity after a 30-hour charrette. Maybe MIT is doing it on an organized basis now, I don't know, but we have to make the proper path clearer to the other schools.
People, there's trouble in River City, which is fast becoming World City. The disunity between design professionals causes unnecessary inefficiency and cost, increases the number of our homeless on the one hand and cre-ates unnecessary fire and seismic hazards for our housed and officed and factoried on the other. Sometimes I wonder who is worse off.
Our professions are not up to the challenge any more because it has grown faster than we have. Those pictures of refugees and pancaked buildings, how often do they have to be repeated? Do they portray the future conditions of most of the future population of 20 or 30 or whatever billion?
Those billions want our standard of living and better. Get ready.
Right down the hall (at least that's where they used to be) are the ar-chitects.
We'd better get our acts together. This is MIT. We have a place to stand
and a very long lever in our hands to help everybody, if we try.
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