You’re probably familiar with the stereotypes: artists lounge around in paint-smudged smocks, creating statement paintings and thought-provoking sculptures, whilst engineers lock themselves away in sleek glass office towers and spend their days hunched over technical diagrams and calculators. You might accept the common belief that engineers belong firmly in the camp of science, and that they inhabit a completely different world to artists.
But what if we started describing engineering as an art form? After all, the very best engineers are creatives; they design, they build, they imagine new possibilities and they innovate from within and outside of the frameworks of their discipline.
Here at Lyons O’Neill, we believe that a well-engineered solution will have intrinsic beauty and artistic merit. We encourage our engineers to embrace creativity within their practice, and our work involves close collaboration with the design team. We also encourage our team to sketch out their solutions at a very early stage of the project, which boosts crucial client engagement and architectural collaboration, as well as opening up opportunities for improvement and innovation from the very beginning.
However, artistry exists in our portfolio as well as our practice. We have a great range of experience creating design solutions for art spaces. A real stand-out project here is our work with Bold Tendencies– a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting spaces of public art . We were tasked with designing a structure which would both house and be an integral part of their exhibition on Peckham car-park rooftop. We rose to the challenge, creating a group of fully-demountable silo structures held in place with sand-bag ballasts. These structures supported the centre-piece of the exhibition: a surveillance balloon which could be winched from the roof providing a live feed to internet of the surrounding views. The entire installation was designed to be easily assembled by the army of volunteers.
Another significant arts project was our work on the Porter Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum. We created a flexible exhibition space, comprising a lightweight box suspended by cables from the roof. The priority for this project was to keep our structural solutions external so the internal space was free from obstruction and prevents disruption to the viewer’s experience of the art. The entrance to the space also creates a transitional lobby for visitors moving between the V&A proper and the contemporary programme. We designed this lobby to offer different forms of access to the gallery through five seven-metre high rotating screens, which can be reconfigured to suit the curatorial needs of each exhibition. This is a clear example of engineering enhancing creativity, creating a new experience of a space and its art for visitors.
However, it’s not only within engineering that the integration of science and art is seen. The breaking down of disciplinary boundaries is an idea which is rapidly growing in popularity and acceptance. The campaign to integrate art into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching (creating STEAM) has been gaining traction in the UK and the US, with researchers at Cambridge University concluding that allowing children to explore STEM subjects through art injects possibility, imagination, and ‘magic’ into their classroom experience. CERN have recently invited artists to spend up to three months working alongside their researchers via their flagship COLLIDE Artists Residency Award, and The Royal Academy of Arts runs a hugely popular dual-track masters programme ‘Innovation Design Engineering’ with Imperial College London, which focuses on the “exploration and development of impactful innovation through critical observation, disruptive design thinking, experimentation, exploration of emergent technologies, advanced engineering and enterprise activities”.
It seems that recognising that creativity and imagination is a central pillar of the engineering profession, which can help us capture the interest of the next generation as well as enriching our practice today.