Published: 17 November 2016
(Image: Wikimedia Commons, credit Valcraft)
Institution member, David Brett, has been a structural engineer since 1959, working for Atkins, Arup, and the NBA (National Building Agency) before becoming the Group Marketing Director of the Conder Group. He founded a marketing consultancy specialising in the construction industry professions in 1981. Here he discusses the Millau Viaduct, and argues that engineers need to get better at publicising their achievements.
I became an engineer due to my interest in maths, physics and mechanics. My cousin, Peter Brett, was also an inspiration as he worked for Arup. I’m proud of a number of outstanding projects that I have worked on during my career, including the first building at Sussex University, where I worked with Brutalist architect Basil Spence. It was through this work that I came to realise the enormous input which engineers bring to the built environment.
Bridges are a good example: they are primarily feats of engineering, as opposed to architecture, yet the most famous examples in the world tend to be perceived by the media and much of the general public as the work of architects. The extraordinary Millau Viaduct in France is a striking case. This 343m high, 2460m long structure is one of the most outstanding and beautiful works of structural engineering that we have, yet it is generally credited in the media to its architect, Norman Foster.
Its chief structural designer, the hugely talented Michel Virlogeux, is a former gold medallist of the Institution and also responsible for wonderful structures like Pont de Normandie - the longest cable stayed structure in the world. He has won several architectural awards for his work, yet has not received the attention he deserves in the media for Millau. Why? As the tallest bridge in the world the viaduct is a triumph above all of engineering, combining a number of both modern and traditional skills to help solve the construction challenges involved.
It was engineers who assessed the feasibility of a single structure spanning the valley of the river Tarn; engineers who used sophisticated satellite survey techniques to position the enormous piers (Pier P2 is taller than the Eiffel tower!); it was engineers who devised the split piers - which help to absorb the expansion and contraction of the viaduct under different temperature and weather conditions (an ancient ship building technique); it was engineers who used a unique sliding wedge solution to push the bridge decks into position.
The point is that architecture played only a minor part in the production, design and construction of this marvel of infrastructure over the Tarne valley. While recently there have been some wonderful new TV programmes celebrating the contribution of engineers, and more and more emphasis on engineering in education, the Viaduct’s lingering label as a work of Norman Foster shows that engineers have a long way to go in informing the public about the absolutely vital contribution we make to the structures they see all around them.
We need to do this through more and better publicity – if you don’t blow your trumpet nobody else will!