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Posted by  Paul Malo on October 08, 2002 at 07:34:19:

In Reply to:  Structures...and Innovation! posted by Jacques Pochoy on October 06, 2002 at 04:15:11:

Thanks again, Jacques, for posting this interesting item. It’s difficult to get into it, at least from my vantage point, for it is so characteristic of "Continental" philosophy today—so (forgive me) French—the "death of the author" and all that. We don’t take that sort of navel-gazing very seriously here, where our philosophical trend (like that of the British) is more towards Pragmatism.

The general argument of the preamble is not new here, however. We have long had a faction that defends "autonomous" architecture, which is to say, that architecture is about architecture—not about social or environmental problems, for instance—and that architecture has its own inherent principles of formal organization. This of course is the sort of issue that comes into focus when we talk about Fascist or Communist architecture—or rather, those who believe in autonomous architecture DON’T talk about Fascist or Communist architecture (or tangle architectural questions with problems of the Middle East).

To get to the more particular content of the paper, what is "failure" of a structure? The author seems to imply that other structural designers had been more timid, supposing that mere deformation of the structure as tantamount to collapse. This is untrue, since all engineers have recognized that "failure" is not an absolute, but a matter of degree. They have been able to calculate the amount of deflection that would occur, but whether this was considered to be "failure" or not was a matter of arbitrary preference. One of my colleagues built a house where he elegantly pared the structure to minimal dimensions, only to find that the client complained that the dishes rattled in the china cabinet when the cat walked across the dining room floor. Was this "failure"? It’s a matter of taste, not of science.

Again, another friend and colleague was Bucky’s right-hand man, the actual architect who got many of Fuller’s projects built. I recall visiting one (which I may have mentioned in an earlier thread) where a big space frame was propped up with columns, added after it sagged alarmingly. It didn’t "fail" in the sense of collapsing, but did fail as not fulfilling the original intention, which was to provide a horizontal roof plane, not a dish to collect rain. The difficulty here was cumulative slippage of all those connections. Each joint was strong enough to transfer the loads, but their mechanical assembly allowed some slippage, and multiplied over and over, the total deflection of the frame became objectionable.

I live in an old house, where many elements have become deformed through fatigue of material. The building is sound, however, even if surfaces tilt and sag. Deformation is not failure, surely, and Le Ricolais was not the first to understand this. All architects know—or soon learn—that all buildings are dynamic, constantly moving (which is why we have many pesky leaks).

The other issue is the "Factor of Safety." The author seems to suppose there is something heroic in pushing structure to the limit, being audacious and daring. It takes no genius to simply keep reducing resistance to the breaking point. You simply build a model and keep increasing the load, to see what happens. Any kid can do that—and indeed they do, in some of our school physics labs. Structural designers NEVER build truly minimal structures, however, because we require a "factor of safety," making the structure several times stronger that the minimal requirement. This is mere prudence. Being adventurous is not heroic, when human lives are at stake.

When the author slips into discussion of the "water garden," I begin to suspect that he is not an engineer but an aesthetician. It’s the "poetry of structure" genre." I confess I have only scanned the paper, but coming to the end I ask, ":Is this all there is?" I had hoped for some discussion of structural principles. What we seem to get are strucutral impressions. Who is the author? Some graduate student of (Continental) philosophy or aesthetics?

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