Issue 12                                                                                                                                      
January 2017
Engineering loves progress, not nostalgia. It's a profession that looks forward rather than back. The irony for a history of engineering website is obvious.

Some of the engineering artefacts we celebrate no longer exist nor were ever meant to last, yet we commemorate the places where they stood. So in honour of impermanence, our focus for this issue is the one-use wonders, flat-pack innovations and temporary constructs of our fast-moving world.
The triumphs and perils of showing off

Necessity may be the mother of invention but impermanence can help, too.  There seems to be a rare kind of freedom in a commission to create a building that prioritizes prowess over long-term or practical use.

In all the world's showcases, who'd have thought that what's basically an enormous flight of steps (below) would prove so enduringly, iconically, internationally popular?  It's a success the creators of London's Millennium Dome could only have dreamed of (and probably did).
Expo, Paris, 1937: Engineer Gustav Eiffel's 1889 tower - the best known relic of any World Fair anywhere - viewed between the pavilions of Hitler's Third Reich (left) and Stalin's Soviet Union (right). The Soviet statue survives in Russia today; the Eiffel Tower claims to be the most visited paid-entrance monument in the world.

photo : via Wikimedia, sourced from
Astana, Kazakhstan, 10 June-10 September 2017: this year's world exposition or "Expo" - fun-fact seekers will enjoy the (unverified) list of now-ubiquitous inventions first revealed at Expos.

At a time when world trade faces the biggest political upheavals in decades, it is interesting to glance at the location and participants of this year's Expo as illustrative of a changing world order.  For Expos and World Fairs, like all aspects of world trade, have always been flagrantly political.

The tradition stems from the French Industrial Fair and beyond, but Britain's 1851 World's Fair in Hyde Park is generally accepted as marking the birth of the modern World Fair or Expo. The Empire's demonstration of engineering prowess was characterized by Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (see engineering-timelines); the French gave it back in spades in 1889 with the Eiffel Tower.

Visit US site for a richly illustrated romp through several of the world's most frequent and famous host cities, including ParisChicagoBarcelonaNew York City, Montreal and St Louis.
Architects Sarah Wan and Aidan Doyle produced this 2016 competition-winning design for "Hanging Meandows" - the re-use of the New York State Pavilion from the 1964-5 World's Fair. The original structure is by US architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster with reknowned engineer and structural disasters expert, Lev Zetlin.

rendering: wandoy studio

Unsurprisingly, a central theme of these international showcases of building and development is what happens when the expo/ fair/ Olympiad moves on? Redevelopment and reuse of such structures varies wildly in its degree of success - a dramatic ongoing example from New York is depicted above. (You can see more about the project on the website of the World Monuments Fund.)

In this aspect, world fairs and expos get better press than recent Olympiads, where reports of incompetence, corruption and waste have become a veritable obsession with the international press.

This may be, in part, because photographs of facilities disintegrating on a massive scale make for such compelling viewing - UK Business Insider's series is just one of many. It's also a little unfair: it seems wrong to point the finger at Sarajevo, for example, for failing to capitalize on its 1984 Winter Olympics development when plunged into subsequent war.

More celebratory photo essays of Olympic architectural and civic successes also make interesting viewing: see the "Top 10" selections from Dezeen and Mentalfloss sites, respectively.
Architect Kenzo Tange's Yoyogi National Gymnasium, engineered by Tange's frequent collaborator, Yoshikatsu Tsuboi, for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics exemplifies successful Olympic design. It remains a beloved civic and engineering icon and despite its age is to be reused for its original purpose in the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games.

Photograph: via www.dreamideamachine
As ever, acknowledgement for the engineers of these extraordinary structures is scarce. Blogger Ben Bansal provides a welcome exception within his lucid article on Tokyo's 1964 Yoyogi National Gymnasium (above) - read it here.
Okay, so some Olympic structures don't make the cut. But actually, the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium pictured here (structural engineering by Prybyloski & Gravino) was not an Olympic stadium at all, even though it hosted the baseball element of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was built in 1965 purely to attract a major baseball team to Atlanta (it worked) and was demolished 30 years later, in 1997, when its tenants moved into a genuine Olympic structure, the 1996 Centennial Olympic Stadium now known as Turner Field.

photo : copyright Reuters photography via

Moving on from the Games, there is for many an enduring fascination in the abandoned artefacts of human endeavour. If you are a fan of such things, German photographer Christian Richter's gorgeous images of abandoned buildings are definitely for you.

Among the many creatives and designers who would love to get their hands on some of Richter's finds (he does his best to keep the location of his subjects secret, to protect them from interference) must surely be Latvian architects, Mailitis - incidentally, no strangers to Expo design themselves.

Their work on the gradual redevelopment of the disused Cesis brewery building (below) sits somewhere between art installation, architecture and engineering design, and is steeped in the history of the site.
The redevelopment of the disused Cesis brewery in Latvia uses multiple temporary installations as a core theme. One aspect commemorates an unnamed engineer who worked on the original Soviet construction before being sent for hard labour to the uranium mines. He was one of very few such prisoners to return.

rendering : copyright Mailitis Architects
Engineering rapid-build and demountable structures for peace and war
On a more sombre note, much of the fascination of Richter's photos lies in their untold tales of flight or failure.

At a time when the numbers of displaced peoples are greater than at any time since the end of World War II, the quality and effectiveness of temporary structures can make a radical difference to millions of people's lives.

Recent good news on the design front is the development of the Better Shelter Unit, a flat-pack refugee housing unit that just picked up both the architecture award and the Grand Prize in the 2017 Beazley Designs of the Year Awards. The exhibition of entries is open at London's Design Museum until 19th February.

Many thousands of the units are already at use in the field (see below). The design is a collaboration between the Ikea Foundation - charitable arm of the flat-pack furniture giant - and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UN Refugee Agency).
One family finds relief in the UNHCR/ Ikea Foundation Better Shelter Unit - currently the most successful in a field of innovations in temporary housing.

photo : copyright UNHCR
For a historic perspective on the most basic of temporary shelters, Radio 4's recent History of Tarpaulin is available online and makes interesting listening.

Or try reading Oliver Razac's Barbed Wire: A Political History (trans. 2002, The New Press, New York) for an elegant study of an often-overlooked innovation in the rapid division of territory in peace... and war.
The huge Phoenix caissons that form part of a Mulberry harbour. Eventually, 212 such caissons were constructed in six different sizes to accommodate different types of seabed. They don't look temporary, do they?

As with many areas of rapid technological progress, the necessities of war have always driven engineering innovation in the field of temporary construction.

One such achievement, the Mulberry harbour (pictured above) has left remnants that can be visited at various locations across the UK, often at low tide (check engineering-timelines). The fabulously-named gives a lively and readable account of their development and use.

To return to a theme, prefab housing is a hallmark of British wartime construction and postwar reconstruction. The online Prefab Museum promises much for the eager prefab fan - but engineering-timelines can find no evidence that its anticipated 2017 travelling event has come to fruition. Perhaps keen-eyed engineering-timelines enthusiasts could keep their antennae out for developments... and please drop us a line if you identify any near you.

A final word on this massive topic: for real enthusiasts or indeed, professionals, this year's Military Expo runs from 28th February - 2nd March at London Olympia. Given the modern armed forces' role in humanitarian support and postwar construction, visitors will find plenty of peaceful applications to consider in addition to direct military activity.
This photograph from an old edition of National Geographic is of men attempting to cross the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia via a broken bridge. It inspired the founders of US-based charity Bridges to Prosperity to build bridges that reduce rural isolation in the developing world. Two of their projects are the subject of a study of the ICE journal's Special Edition on Humanitarian Engineering (2016).
photo : from National Geographic via Bridges to Prosperity

Comedienne/ civil engineer Pip Jefferis quips, darkly, "Military engineers make weapons and civil engineers make targets." 

Her routine, What do you do when you've blown everything up?, is part of a comedy night, Engineering Show-off, commandeered by Engineers Without Borders as a fundraising opportunity - so there's a serious side to all the black humour. If you're interested in going along - or perhaps performing! - check the relevant pages of the Science Showoff website for gigs throughout 2017.

In many disaster or development scenarios, engineers are the professionals most needed both for emergency relief and longer-term reconstruction. And engineers are increasingly responding to the call: take a look at the work of organizations such as Engineers Without Borders and Bridges to Prosperity, to name but two. 

To read in more depth about contemporary developments, the ICE journal's Special Edition on Humanitarian Engineering (2016) is an excellent place to start.  It's for subscribers only, but if you don't want to pay you can still read the abstracts and take your researches forward from there.
It might not work as emergency housing, but Second Dome by Spanish architecture firm, DOSIS, provided lots of fun in a London park in 2016.

Photo : © Iwan Baan 2016

"Ars longa, vita brevis," wrote the ancient physician Hippocrates (only he wrote in Ancient Greek, not Latin). He was the father of a profession but he did not anticipate either the increased lifespan nor the superbrief art of the 21st Century - some of it almost literally bubbles.

Blowing the biggest of these, Isabel Collado and Ignacio Pedro of DOSIS are frequently drawn to pneumatics and "lighter than air" creations in their search for alternative ways to make new urban spaces. Perhaps not much use for humanitarian efforts (yet) but still a lot of fun - watch their Second Dome (pictured above) in action on this video.

The architects' website mentions their work at MIT, Boston, so maybe they are already familiar with some of the fabulous developments in self-inflating materials there - if you're not, check out aeromorph, here.
Spanish architects, SelgasCano, designed the 2015 summer pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery: each year, Britain's most high profile truly temporary structure and a highly anticipated event. Engineering by AECOM in collaboration with David Glover.

Photo : via Wikipedia. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License
What's with the Spanish architects and their plastic polytunnels? 

Or was the joke on us, northern consumers of out-of-season strawberries, when architects Jose Selgas and Lucia Cano produced their controversial summer pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery in 2015?

But despite superficial similarities, anyone can see the difference in engineering design between the work of SelgasCano, with its fabric membrane woven through a steel frame, and the inflatables of DOSIS. Second Dome has more in common with the ill-fated Dreamspace installation created by British artist, Maurice Agis. Agis's failure to consult an engineer led to devastating consequences in 2006: you can read a report on the safety ruling here.

AECOM, with David Glover, provided engineering and technical design services for Serpentine summer pavilions for four year from 2013-16, 2016 including associated summer houses in an expansion of the usual project.

Jon Leach, Director and Technical Practice Group Leader at AECOM, writes of the 2016 pavilion (below): “Creating a temporary structure brings no fewer challenges than if it were permanent. Knowledge of manufacturing, fabrication and construction methods, as well as materials, planning and building control processes, are all essential.” See the full report at
Bjarke Ingels' 2016 fibreglass block pavilion was reportedly engineered (by AECOM) to bear the moving load of human climbers, but Royal Parks safety consultants took one look at the height of it and added guide ropes as a barrier to have-a-go art mountaineers.  In other words, boys, you're not supposed to climb on it... but who on earth could resist?

Photo : ©
Enjoy the full round up of past pavilions while we wait to see what feats await us in 2017. Or create your own transient utopia out of paper at a free Serpentine Family Day on Saturday 11th February, 1:00-5:00pm.

For professional engineers, more in-depth (!) creative training is available with the Engineering Club's four week intensive course, Creative Engineers Change the World.  The course begins on 26th April, so you've still time to investigate further.

And finally, for the ultimate in transience, engineering-timelines turns to the work of "burn artist" David Best, long-standing participant in America's strange and magnificent Burning Man festival.

You may have seen images of Best's contribution (below) to 2016's celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, commissioned by Artichoke. Again, there's no mention of an engineer for this project, unlike Best's equally spectacular Temple Derry-Londonderry in 2015, engineered by MCR Consulting.

Best did, however, work with a pyrotechnist for Great Fire 350.  A pyrotechnist... what a profession!  Watch the strangely compelling 50 minute video here, if you can find the time.
Artist David Best created this beautiful floating impression of the London skyline in 1666... and burnt it. So you don't have to.

Photo : via
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