INSIGHT BY RICHARD VOSS
Although the definition between the architecture and engineering professions is somewhat murky, some of history’s most innovative architects were in fact structural engineers. I admit that some of these engineers are my architectural heroes. It is only through a holistic understanding of engineering principles that architecture can become truly masterful. Here I look at three inspirational “engineer architects” who innovated in a way that demonstrates relevance today.
Craig Ellwood: Engineer Architect who pioneered elegance and buildability
I was introduced to the fascinating career of Craig Ellwood (1922-1992) by Neil Jackson, a former university tutor of mine, who wrote an Ellwood biography in the early 2000s. There has been a debate as to whether Craig Ellwood was “an architect”, because he had no formal architectural registration. By chance, while recently travelling in Southern California, I picked up Making LA Modern: Craig Ellwood, a new book by Michael Boyd. The book’s contemporary photos by Richard Powers of Ellwood’s various modernist house projects demonstrate that he was "definitely an architect”. He originally trained as an engineer, but through his 1950s and 1960s architectural works, he defined himself as the “Californian Mies”.
According to Michael Boyd’s book he had a love of fast cars and mixed with the Hollywood set in Southern California. Although his personal life was at times complex, he always sought simplicity in his elegantly detailed and well-proportioned buildings. Craig Ellwood is not only a master of structural design, but also a timeless interior designer in his approach to texture, colour and light. Today we can learn from Craig Ellwood, because he designed his buildings with simplicity and constructability. His aim was to produce “rationalist low-cost solutions for residential living using industrial methods”. Ellwood’s techniques demonstrate the appeal of effective interdisciplinary architecture and engineering.
Francis Fowke: An Engineer who innovated through collaboration
Growing up in the United Kingdom, one of my favourite buildings was the Royal Albert Hall in London. However, I stumbled across the name of its Anglo-Irish architect, Francis Fowke (1823-1865), quite by accident while I was reading an article about his innovations in early camera design. Fowke, like other Victorian military engineers, pushed the technological boundaries of photography. However, he was never acknowledged by the established architectural profession, despite his impressive suite of significant civic buildings in the British Isles.
Under the direction of Sir Henry Cole, Royal Engineers such as Fowke, assisted with some of the most exciting buildings in Victorian London: the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Crystal Palace and the 1862 International Exhibition Building. The engineers honed their collaboration skills on the building works by working closely with decorative artists and sculptors. This in turn had an effective and pleasing result architecturally.
Fowke’s education was founded in the military engineering doctrine of the early 1800s in what was termed, “practical architecture”. Although this focused mainly on the materials of the day, such as brick and stone, Fowke developed new technologies such as structural cast iron, gas lighting, fire resistant materials and ventilation systems. He produced some of the most structurally economic buildings of the time including a drill shed for the 1st Middlesex Volunteer Engineers, which was described by Sir Joseph Paxton as the cheapest structure he had ever seen.
If his innovative buildings were not enough, Fowke went on to invent many new patents, which included collapsible pontoons, fire engines, umbrellas and cameras. He was the complete “engineer architect” - where no design challenge task was outside his interest and technical ability. Today Fowke’s building legacy at South Kensington in London is particularly unique, but he also shows us the power in interdisciplinary collaboration to drive new typologies in architecture and design.
Buckminster Fuller: An Inventor who advocated environmental responsibility
Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a household name at my architectural school. Like others, I immersed myself in his architectural projects and theory writings during my studies. Fuller’s 1983 obituary in the New York Times described him simply as a "futurist inventor”. In my view Fuller was an illustrious thinker who, although he was born in the 1890s (Fowke’s Victorian period), coined the term "Spaceship Earth”. Fuller was ahead of his time as he engaged proactively in the pressing environmental and sustainability issues of the day.
Buckminster Fuller envisaged that Manhattan Island would be covered in a giant dome to help regulate its climate. He was also driven by a strong values agenda in wanting to improved people’s health and their quality of life through better housing. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, he pioneered the aluminium clad “Dymaxion House”, which was an early precursor of prefabrication housing. Therefore, not only did Buckminster Fuller want to improve the quality of housing, he strove to improve efficiencies in the way buildings were produced. It is not possible to call Fuller simply an architect and engineer, as he was so much more: inventor, futurist, cartographer, philosopher, lecturer and writer. His legacy still lives on in the people he met, particularly the young students he so tirelessly lectured during extensive travelling.
Today we can learn from Buckminster Fuller because he addressed the burning issues of the day in a visionary and insightful manner. Perhaps he realized that the global environmental challenges were intrinsically linked to health, wellness and productivity? Furthermore, he strongly believed that design innovation could resolve the dilemma of the Earth’s finite natural resources.
As we have seen, the synergy between architecture and engineering can deliver unique, considered and innovative buildings. Engineers are potentially well placed to not only deliver the infrastructural demands in our urban cities, but also to enrich the design language of projects.
The project work of Craig Ellwood is lauded for its structural simplicity and buildability, with interiors enriched by textured and layered beauty. Francis Fowke, by contrast a Victorian engineer, was in some ways more innovative in his technical approach than the established architectural profession of the time. Fowke sought new methods of collaboration within his own team and with decorative artists. In addition, Buckminster Fuller’s architectural projects and teachings were a harbinger of sustainable buildings and cities. Fuller believed that architecture could promote wellness and the responsible use of the Earth’s finite resources. Not limited to the confines of their profession, these three designers started to develop new typologies.
Today, the challenge is to promote the cross-sector approach of designers such as Craig Ellwood, Francis Fowke and Buckminster Fuller. Although we are seeing increasing innovation outside the conventional norms of sector-based design, masterful buildings are ultimately borne out of successful collaboration between both architects and engineers.
Note: Making LA Modern: Craig Ellwood by Michael Boyd is published by Rizzoli (2018).