May 25: Practical Use vs. Freedom of Design

2016/05/25 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1869 the Civil Engineers’ Club of the Northwest was founded.

Engineer Charles Paine organized the meeting of about twenty engineers interested in forming a professional society.  It was one of the many such organizations to spring up around the time of the close of the Civil War to advance individual professions (many of them newly invented) and nurture camaraderie among their practitioners.  This one would serve civil engineers specifically in the American “northwest,” which, at the time, meant the chunk of land west of the Great Lakes (the territory in the wayyy far northwest was admitted to the Union as Washington State in 1889).  Thus the Civil Engineers Club of the Northwest reflected the regional development of the professions in the US: it was preceded by the Boston Society of Civil engineers in 1848, the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1852 and the Engineering Club of St. Louis in 1868.

The Club was founded to draw together engineers of all kinds, but emphasized the discipline that ruled the region: rail.  Chicago was the hub of major lines that crisscrossed the country; their presence is literally foregrounded in the view of the city above (ca. 1870).  Paine was chief engineer of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway; the group’s first president was Roswell B. Mason, Chief Engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad (and also Chicago’s mayor).

In 1880 the group was folded into the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago, which began publication of the Western Society of Engineers’ Journal in 1896.  Very much focused on the concerns of professionals, the journal featured topics on such subjects as ship canals, the mechanics of suction pipes, street grades, the design of bridges and breakwaters.  Very little was written about architects, which as a profession had tried for decades to explain itself as different from the kind of “building” concerns that actually seemed to embarrass some of the engineers.  In the 1899 issue of the Journal, engineer Oscar Sanne considered differences between the two within his article, “Some Hints of Bridge Designing:”

No man can admire . . . the shape of a T-bar, yet for the practical use its value is immeasurable.  So to us all the elements of a structure are strictly limited; we have to take them as the manufacturer can furnish them; we do not have the same freedom in our designs as the architect has at his disposal . . . we have nothing to guide us, no example from ancient time.

Such an interesting confession: here, as late as 1899, after this and this and this and this, the engineer feeling sorry for himself, offering only practical goods in predetermined shapes, with no “freedom in design” because there was no ancient precedent to follow: just the clear-cut pragmatism of industry.  We wonder if he lived long enough to read a later architect celebrate his profession and proclaim “Engineers have been busy with barges, with bridges, with Atlantic liners, with mines, with railways.  Architects have been asleep.”  And if he did, would he agree?

View of Chicago before the fire (from this source)

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You are currently reading May 25: Practical Use vs. Freedom of Design at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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