(Above: Wolfsburg 'Pringle')

Mike Schlaich
has been awarded with The Institution of Structural Engineers’ 2015 Gold Medal. Mike is a Professor of Structural Engineering, chairing the Department of Conceptual and Structural Design at Technische Universität Berlin. He is also a Managing Director of schlaich bergermann und partner, consulting structural engineers, where he has overseen a range of projects including the Ting Kau cable-stayed bridge in Hong Kong and presently the new Yamuna cable-stayed bridge in New Delhi, India.

He has received numerous Awards, including the Deutscher Brückenbau Preis (German Bridge Award), The Balthasar-Neumann-Preis (Balthasar-Neumann Award) and The Deutscher Ingenieurbaupreis (German Award for Structural Engineering). He is also the author of a many publications including the book “Footbridges” (Birkhäuser Verlag).

Here Mike talks about his career, his thoughts on the profession’s responsibility to ‘Baukultur’, and winning the Gold Medal.

(Above: Christian Garden, Berlin)

Receiving the Gold Medal is a wonderful honour. When I think of the award’s previous winners, many of them my heroes, it makes me blush.

My father, Jörg Schlaich, received the Award 25 years ago and naturally his career influenced my decision to become a structural engineer. He had studied in Berlin and later in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship, then returned to Germany where he worked with Fritz Leonhardt and others of the Stuttgart Engineering Tradition. In 1980 he formed the schlaich bergermann practise with Rudolf Bergermann.

During his career he designed the Olympic Stadium roof in Munich. I would see this building all the time as a child and unsurprisingly this was a key root of my interest in engineering. Other of his projects were an equally big inspiration, like the second Hooghly River Bridge in Calcutta, which was an extraordinary achievement - at the time it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, the first to be built with a composite deck; yet it was built indigenously, all riveted, making it a really sustainable project. I was also fascinated by the office’s work with solar energy, designing solar thermal power plants.

You might say that my father tricked me into engineering! I wanted to study photography, but he suggested that I could not dismiss engineering without investigating it. So it was that I went to study engineering at ETH University in Zurich with Christian Menn, a Swiss engineer who left a big impact on me. The "doctor fathers" for my PhD in computer science at the ETH were Eduardo Anderheggen and Bruno Thürlimann. After eight years in Zurich I began my first job in Spain at fhecor, where I learned about the Spanish tradition. I was enormously impressed by the work of Eduardo Torroja, who was a generalist working with all kind of materials and structural types. So it was that 12 years abroad finally convinced me that engineering was my profession!

I was very fortunate to return home and immediately set to work with my father’s office. In 2002 the next generation, Knut Göppert, Andreas Keil, Sven Plieninger and me, took over. Four partners and four friends. Today we are five as Knut Stockhusen has joined us in 2015.  We specialise in anything which is long-span and lightweight. We try to respect the traditions established by our founders, but look to the horizon as well, which is why we’ve expanded into Shanghai, New York, Paris and São Paulo.

I work at the office and the University every day, with ten PhD students, researching light structures like carbon fibres which have hugely promising applications for lighter, stronger structures. We are also researching load bearing insulation materials like infra-lightweight concrete, which is so light it floats on water and has potential to make for truly sustainable material as it will be so recyclable – today if you demolish a building you effectively create toxic waste, as it is impossible to separate the glues etc. used in construction.

(Above: Concept Design for New Wear Crossing)

Over my career I have had the privilege to get to know great engineers like Christian Menn, Ted Happold, Heinz Isler, and Fazlur Khan and to collaborate with architects like Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw and Frank Gehry – my father and I worked with Frank to produce a conceptual design for the New Wear Bridge planned for Sunderland. It’s also been my great pleasure to work with the American artist, Christo, on his Mastaba project – if built it will be the largest structure in the world: 500,000 oil barrels covering a truncated pyramid larger than that at Giza.

One of the timeless challenges engineers face is sustainability, an issue we always have in mind. As experts in lightweight structures my office are in many ways experts in sustainability as such structures are sustainable by nature. One of the big problems we have is that energy saving measures like insulation are actually energy intensive to produce – which is something of a Catch 22. That’s why one of the things we are most interested in at schlaich bergermann und partner is developing free, clean, renewable energy. When you achieve that you do not need insulation any more. Large solar thermal power plants in the North African desert could produce all the energy we require, then we could reduce the sustainability question to being careful with our resources.

I believe engineers need to contribute far more to ‘Baukultur’ or the ‘Culture of Buildings’ in our work – that is producing quality structures to improve quality of life. We still have a lot to learn in this respect.  We have a large responsibility in some areas, like bridges, and we need to approach our work as less of a checklist and more of a creative process. We need to always think more about the elegance of our structures – of course we can argue about what defines elegance but we must not be slaves to codes and software, making design more of a conscious act wherever we can.

The architect Volkwin Marg said that architecture is “a dance in chains” – in engineering there are many chains but we must keep dancing. This is what I try to teach at the university: that structural engineering is not about being specialist in particular materials – we should have a holistic, conceptual design approach. This is mirrored in the way we teach at my university, where we no longer have timber, steel or concrete Professors but three Professors of Conceptual and Structural Design. We believe in training structural engineers as creative and highly skilled generalists.

(Above: Tin Kau Bridge, Hong Kong)

Many Germans don’t really understand what engineers do: that is partly down to engineers failing to raise awareness, and partly down to the public being anaesthetised by the visual pollution of dull engineering design, like ugly bridges and sound barriers on motorways. In Germany we tend to settle for the cheapest in engineering and this has to change – you don’t always buy the cheapest concert ticket or the cheapest car. We need to start a bigger conversation about the importance of structural engineers’ work and the importance of elegant design, explaining to engineers, clients and the public alike that there’s a difference between value and cost.

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