Steve Webb is a founder and Director of Webb Yates Engineers. This year the company is showcasing a sculptural installation at Venice Biennale – the exhibition of art, architecture, cinema, dance, music and theatre. Here he discusses the installation and the importance of design ability in structural engineers.

Our installation is called "Sheltering Under Marble Skies" - it’s a small rain shelter in a park, the result of a collaboration between Webb Yates, Amin Taha Architects and stone masons, Ateliers Romeo and Mineral Expertise. 

The fabrication method is new and innovative, laminating stone with fibre glass to form a kind of stone plywood. This is curved into a 5m x 5m canopy made of cone barrel vaults that taper along 5m from 1.5m to 0.5m and 25mm thick. The arches are cut vertically to echo the palazzos facing the Grand Canal and are left elongated and tapered to drift informally into the canopy of trees within the park.

It is not just an aesthetic project, but a demonstration of the material’s potential to provide faster construction with a lower carbon footprint (10% of concrete or steel construction). Ultimately, the virtues of this new process is exceptional longevity, inherent strength and beauty.

We’ve been involved with the biennale before – it’s a truly international event focussed on architecture and, more importantly, on social and ethical issues related to the built environment. I think it’s very important that engineers are represented in these debates, seeing themselves as actors in the process of creating architecture, adding their intellectual weight and power of invention to the discussion. 

I think only about 25% of architects understand and appreciate good structural design and this is evident in their work. Many do not, and many engineers are trained primarily to pursue only safety and economy, which is important but too often comes at the expense of contributing to architecture.

Engineers should put creating delightful structures on their agenda. Structure has always been evident in architecture, all the way back to the Pantheon, and there have been distinct movements to make architecture more structural since the Gothic period. Structural architecture doesn’t necessarily mean macalloy bars and steel column trees. I personally enjoy buildings that look like what they are, like Portcullis House.

Engineering isn’t art, and neither is architecture. But engineering design can have content and sub text in the way art does, and it can be conceived to create delight as well as shelter. That’s what we hope to showcase with Sheltering Under Marble Skies.

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