Sunday, August 19, 2007

Good Engineering doesn't mean ugly

Here in Minnesota we're now starting the debate about the design of the new 35W bridge.

On one side is MN DOT and the Governor saying we need to have it done fast and that there isn't time for a great design. To quote MNDOT, "It won't be beautiful but it won't be ugly." That has to be a new standard for setting low expectations.

The other side says that good design doesn't have to take a lot more time or cost any more. That side (my side) notes that, since this bridge is planned to last 100 years we should take the time to do it right.

The standard line is that out of the three goals:
  • low cost,
  • beauty, and
  • fast;

you can only pick two. I would argue that that isn't necessarily true.

Often, in the push to go fast or get by cheap, governments go with the plan that looks like it will be the lowest initial cost. There are three very good examples of where Minnesota picked "cheep and quick" over quality and beauty that didn't turn out. All are within a mile of each other in downtown Minneapolis.
  • I remember back in high school a debate in the newspaper over the design of the 35W bridge that just fell down. People were complaining that it was ugly. That just when Minneapolis was starting to re-claim the river from industry that we didn't need a boring, industrial bridge. The response was that the money wasn't available and the the design selected was a lot cheaper.
  • A few years before that, Minneapolis built a new downtown central library as a part of a downtown urban renewal project. The city kept cutting the budget. No one thought about the future of libraries. We built the last library that had closed stacks--85 percent of the books were in stacks that were only accessible to the public. The building was not flexible, few walls could be moved. The building was dark. It was ugly. Only 33 years latter, we started the process to build a new central library.
  • Back in the 1980s, Minnesota built the Humphrey Metrodome. Everyone was thrilled that it cost so little to build. Problem is, it has never worked for baseball and it is the last major league park built with a fixed roof (in Minnesota where on a nice summer evening you WANT to be outside--we don't want to waste our short summer). A short 15 years later, the Twins and Vikings started demanding a new stadium that would meet their needs. We are now building a new Twins stadium, only 25 years after the dome was built.

Now a little about engineering. Quality engineering is always about doing things with elegance. Quality engineering does not mean ugly. In fact the best engineering can be beautiful. Examples of structural engineering that come to mind include the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge--all designed by engineers--not architects.

There is a great OpEd in the New York Times yesterday--One Bridge Doesn't Fit All. By David Billington (professor of structural engineering at Princeton and co-author of Power, Speed and Form: Engineers and the Making of the 20th Centruy)

I Titled this post Engineering doesn't mean Ugly. A friend just asked a related question:

Is there such a thing as ugly engineering that is not bad engineering?

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