Sunday, November 01, 2009

Structural Engineering: A Hipster's Tale

Structural engineering is hip. In fact, it is so hip, that structural engineering has perhaps become a kind of emblem for erudition. A cocktail conversation or beer bust suddenly enters another plane of hipsterdom as Gustave Eiffel, Ove Arup, or Félix Candela are namechecked in the same breath as Television, The Flying Burrito Brothers, or Buzzcocks. That structural engineering has some level of hip caché becomes evident in David Gordon Green's hipster-action-stonerroman Pineapple Express (2008). You may remember the scene where Saul Silver (James Franco) confesses to Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), before taking a draw from an impeccably-wrought "cross joint", that his favorite civil engineers are M.M. O'Shaughnessy and Hannskarl Bandel.

Okay, so these two are civil, not structural engineers, but I think you may be catching the point I'm trying to make here. Note how O'Shaughnessy's innovations for the Golden Gate Bridge are secondary only to his ability to roll a fatty.

For more evidence that urban youth culture has taken knowledge of structural engineering as a signifier of taste, consider the interview with Guy Nordenson in the latest issue of The Believer. As many readers will surely know, The Believer is a pretty good read. Published semimonthly, the magazine bears some of the quirky, understated, yet meticulous chamber humor from the McSweeney's imprint. I sometimes find myself taking issue with some of the reviewers. For example, William Giraldi's essay (from the March/April 2009 issue) on why William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), the "scariest movie ever made", is not so scary relies so much on the author's own agnosticism and overlooks the film's sheer visual power. The interview with Nordenson, on the other hand, is a very good read. Here's an example:

BELIEVER: You've worked with a number of very accomplished architects. What are the parameters for a successful collaboration?

NORDENSON: There is a need to mark off territory so that inventive energies have space to develop. Where there is good collaboration, people are comfortable giving up space to each other because they believe that they will be pleased with what comes out of it. Look at someone like Peter Rice, a very successful Irish engineer who worked in France and Britain and collaborated very closely with Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers among others. He had a certain number of preoccupations. Piano and Rogers appreciated these preoccupations and benefited from them because they made their architecture more complex and sophisticated. They made room.

The opposite of that is Frank Gehry, where there is an absolute instrumentalization of all disciplines and all tools to execute an artistic vision with Gehry at the top of the pyramid. There are technical challenges and opportunities but not a whole lot of give and take. Frank Gehry's relationship to engineering and consruction says: the cruder the better. You visit the Disney Concert Hall and, in the office of the musical director, there's this gigantic gusset plate that's part of one of the trusses in the system. It's exposed and fire-protected. One of the architects who worked on the project described it to me as a train crash in a room. It's monumentally messy.

Nordenson's candor is something wholly missing from contemporary architecture criticism, which, as a colleague remarked to me, is something akin to creating a treatment for a Hollywood blockbuster starring your own bestest, coolest friends. The interview manages to capture a little bit of the hipster in Nordenson, especially when he's talking about his current projects. Check out this exchange, on the heels of Nordenson's remark that Palisade Bay is the "Central Park of the twenty-first century":

BELIEVER: Can you elaborate on the comparison though? Central Park, as conceived in the 1850s, was to be a geographical and social nexus for the city. It also communicated certain narratives about pastoral nature and city life. What do you think Palisade Bay will communicate? What messages are in the subtext?

NORDENSON: It links back to the psychological. Psychological is probably too weak a word. If you go back to D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence recognized that in the nineteenth century there was this issue for Americans to contend at the same time with European culture and the wilderness. Both wilderness as reality and wilderness as an idea. I just finished reading a review of the biography of John Muir. Muir and Olmsted were part of a culture that included Melville and others who thought hard about what this wild animal of nature meant to them. The presence of Central Park in the city is tied to this thinking. Muir would have argued that, to be complete, humans must have that sense of both wonder and fear in the face of nature in the city as well as in the wild.

I grew up at a time when Central Park went through this transition from being a useful and functional part of our lives to a place that was to be feared. I think many people who lived in New York through the 1970s appreciated that there was this duality of danger and opportunity that existed in places like Central Park but also on the water, under the elevated highway, and out on the abandoned piers. This is what appealed to Smithson. He was another fan of Smithson.

Where Palisade Bay has this kind of energy is where it comes between the apocalyptic tone of climate change and a very American tradition of thinking about nature.

There is much that is true in that statement. And yet what impresses me most is the kind of reasoning that such an exchange revealed. Here's a figure who is able to marshal his own understanding of history and culture in service of a project (as well as a different understanding of, um, green than that from Pineapple Express) without sounding like a pitch-man. And though there was a bit of self-conscious, light-hearted hipster bashing at the beginning of this piece, I was speaking somewhat truthfully. Nordenson not only teaches at Princeton, but Gustave Eiffel is an important figure in my own research. So, I may be a little biased in my own assessment of Nordenson vis-a-vis my personal interest in the history of engineering. But, despite all the nudge-winking, such interest in Nordenson is totally justified. He is, for lack of a better word, hip.


mark said...

i don't get it. what is 'hipster' about Nordenson? his honesty in talking about architects? all engineers do that.

his being able to place a project in historocultural context? okay, not all engineers can do that, but how does it qualify as 'hipster'?

enrique said...

Hi Mark ... the post was written in a joking manner. Thanks for stopping by!

luke said...

hey, i don't mind an intellectual hipster. said...

he's a total hipster. structural engineering is more grounded, closer to the streets, more workmanlike, than architecture which is passing through the cycle and is now in a phase where it is associated with grandiose gestures.

he also wants danger in a public space. in fact, he's way cooler than a hipster.