Aesthetics and the Engineer

50th Anniversary of a Speech by Ove Arup to members and guests of Municipal Engineers at the Town Hall, Oxford, on 24 November 1966

An Extract from the Speech

Source: Ove Arup Philosophy of Design

Edited by Nigel Tonks and Derek Sugden

Having attended a talk recently by the Ian Firth, Senior Vice President of the Institution of Structural Engineers (2017) entitled ‘Elegance of Bridges’ at Manchester University, it was good to see the subject of aesthetics as an essential part of good engineering design.

He quoted from Vitruvious, the Roman Architect, Engineer and writer in his book De Architectura, who coined the three essential components of good architecture as:

Commodity, Firmness and Delight

(utilitas, firmitas and venustas)

With examples of elegant and ‘not-so-elegant’ bridges Ian set out to show that ‘Delight‘ is just as much a cornerstone of good engineering as Commodity (or perhaps fitness for purpose) and Firmness (solidity, balance).

With promotion of aesthetics in engineering design high on the agenda it is perhaps a good time to demonstrate that this was just as much a subject of concern 50 years and more in the past.

Ove Arup: Aesthetics and the Engineer

24 November 1966

We return to the address, published in ‘Ove Arup Philosophy of Design’.  Ove, addressing the Municipal Engineers at the Town Hall, Oxford, in his talk noted that he had been given a similar request by the Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers (circa 1959), to address the problem:

“We have come to the conclusion that something must be done to improve the appearance of engineering structures. Engineers lack training in the aesthetic aspects of design.”

Ove announced that he would now try to tackle the subject in this particular speech. It is highly recommended to purchase or read the book, which was collated by Nigel Tonks and Derek Sugden of Arup, which captures the essence of Ove Arup and his philosophy, but an extract below gives a taste of this speech.

Extract from the Speech

Ove is referring to the problem of producing a full-blown account of an engineering design of a significant project, in order to lay out the principles behind good design, taking into account its problems and aesthetic considerations, among other design issues….

Best way to design 

There is a very good reason for that - and that is my third difficulty. The reason is simply that it is a very complicated thing to do. ……You have first to make the reader understand the whole of the design problem - all the different considerations and conditions affecting the design, and to make him see the whole thing in space. It may have taken the designer some time to get really familiar with the spatial possibilities so that he could start designing in his head without the help of the drawing board-and in my experience, at any rate, that is the best way to design.

To make the reader follow this process requires a very clear exposition, with numerous three­-dimensional sketches and photographs of models of all the various stages and the various rejected possibilities. And that means that it could take a whole book to explain thoroughly even one design. Naturally one must try to reduce the thing to essentials - but it will be no mean job.

Undoubtedly we will come to the conclusion in the end that the way to produce a good design is to put a lot of thought and work into it, and let the solution be determined strictly by the nature of the problem, without pre-conceived ideas or reference to common practice. If the solution is right - functionally, technically and economically - then the battle is at any rate almost won. But this is an example of a general maxim which does not give guidance to the practising engineers unless it is explained by reference to practical examples.

To sum up the task is:

1) To explain that it is important to pay attention to 'Beauty'.

2) To survey the many different architectural theories in order to find out whether one can extract some guiding principles.

3) To explain by examples how an engineering structure is really conceived and perfected, describing all the many considerations which influence the choice between different possibilities, and possibly to test the architectural precepts in relation to the actual process of creation.

4) To draw whatever lessons can be obtained from the foregoing exercises.

I wrote this five years ago. I intended to write the paper - or book - but I really was too busy with various jobs - the Sydney Opera House especially - where I could perhaps help to realise in the flesh what I was supposed to talk about, and this seemed to be to be more important. Examples are more convincing than talk.

The situation is therefore more or less the same as it was five years ago - I still have not developed my philosophy of architecture or what you may call it, and I ought perhaps to have turned down your request as well, to avoid wasting your time. But at last I have not undertaken to teach you anything.

And perhaps I even know a little more about the subject now, at any rate I know what I would advise a young engineer to do about it now, and that is to become a damned good engineer first of all and not worry too much about aesthetics.

Perhaps I should explain this a little.

Well, in the foregoing, when I have talked about engineers, I had of course particularly in mind structural or civil engineers who together with architects are responsible for the design of the many structures which clutter up the landscape and determine the character of our environment. Many engineers are of course engaged on research, analytical calculation, administration, organisation and so on, but the people who above all influence our environment are the designers or those who take decisions having a bearing on the design - whether large-scale planning, framing of by-laws governing the height of buildings, fire regulations, zoning or the design of individual structures. For the design is the key to what we are going to get.

Results of good design 

Design is a creative activity. It can of course be mere imitation or routine - and this may be justified if it imitates something good and if it fits into the particular context - but this is hardly design in the proper sense.

We demand of a good design that it results in

a 'thing' which:

functions well

looks well

lasts well


costs as little as possible.

I think most people would agree to this proposition, and that 'looks well' is an essential part of what we are aiming at. There are of course people and amongst them engineers who think it does not matter two hoots what a strictly utilitarian structure such as a grain silo or a gasholder looks like - or perhaps what happens to the back of buildings. But that is surely a very short-sighted view. Such people may be engineers, but they are not creative engineers, they are not original designers. A creative engineer is one who cares about his design, who aims at quality, at excellence. He cannot help being interested in what his brain-child looks like. As I mentioned before, good engineers have always been concerned about this kind of quality and it should really be quite superfluous to stress the point.

Consider for a moment the design of cricket bats, tennis racquets, saddles, golf clubs and other sporting articles, a field where British designs have been outstanding -what is the reason for their success? Not the application of an aesthetic theory. The success is due to the fact the British love their sports, they lavish their care on perfecting the implements, choosing the right woods, achieving the right 'feel' or balance, taking it all very seriously and striving for perfection. Perfection, that is, of function. The aesthetic perfection follows from this personal involvement.

This brings out an interesting point which is in opposition – to an extent – to the two previous posts in which there is a call for ‘more courses in engineering with stronger links to architecture and aesthetics’. Ove appears to have a strongly held view, if you like, borne of the realpolitik of experience, that young engineers, should ignore aesthetics and get on with the job of becoming a ‘dammed good engineer’, further adding that beauty in designed objects, such as cricket bats, comes from the pursuit of perfection in choosing the right materials, and ‘feel’ or balance.

A corollary:

Delight is a sublime quality which a true extension of Commodity and Firmness?

Ergo, the education of engineers does not need more attention to aesthetics?

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