Learning The Hard Way

That beauty in the photo is the 1883 Smithfield Street Bridge over the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. The crenelated steel castle in the foreground is the end portal for the bridge; the actual bridge structure is a set of lenticular trusses visible above and the left of that green streetcar. The designer was Gustav Lindenthal, one of the great bridge engineers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and unsurprisingly the bridge is a national landmark. Here’s an older view of those beautiful trusses:

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about today. When I was at Rensselaer, there was no requirement for a senior or capstone project for civil engineering students. I had some flexibility in my schedule during my last year and so I wanted to try a design project as an independent study, in effect creating my own senior project. The fact that I found a professor willing to advise me on the project didn’t solve a more serious problem: I didn’t know what to design. Fortunately, the American Institute of Architects and American Institute of Steel Construction decided to hold a student competition for a steel bridge. The problem posed for the competition was this: assume that the Smithfield Street Bridge has collapsed from the effects of a flood. Design a replacement meeting modern clearances for the river (which the existing bridge does not).

Because there was an obvious aesthetic component to the competition, I did not feel comfortable doing it by myself. I teamed up with Sam Armijos, an architecture student who was a year ahead of me and looking for a topic for a M. Arch project. We worked out a design together (although I think I may have dragged him along with me to some degree) and I focussed on the analysis and engineering design while he worked on presentation drawings. In addition to his great perspective rendering and other drawings, which made the bridge that lived in our heads look real, Sam’s good humor and calm helped me greatly while working on this self-imposed seemingly-endless task. We both spent more time on the bridge than the coursework required but I think it showed in the result.

Everything was good until the competition ended. We did not win. We so much did not win that when the competition organizers published a booklet showing roughly half of the entires, our design did not make that cut. There’s no way around it: they did not like it. Sam and I got an interesting suggestion as to why when we presented the bridge to our respective departments. The people from the school of architecture at his presentation said they liked the look but were sure it would not stand up. The people from the civil engineering department at my presentation said that sure it would work but it was indescribably ugly. Something about our design seems to have encouraged people to make disparaging comments about it outside their field.

The moral, or at least the moral as I learned it: just because you believe in a design, it doesn’t mean that anyone else will.

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