Why should architects learn structural design

December 6, 2018 | By: ARCH. ROMMEL R. ALANIS

Architects throughout the ages have designed and built structures of enduring beauty and strength. But how should one know those beautiful structures were designed by architects without prior knowledge of technology in the past?

Architecture is like poetry. A smart person will know if a literary work of art is poetry or not when he sees one. Poetry has elements fiction and non-fiction don’t have. An architectural work contains elements ordinary civil works or structures don’t have. You will know a building is a work of architecture and its designer is the poet of forms and spaces by reading its architectural features. Poetry is poetry and not just a verse in form, although a verse might be arranged in poetic form like poetry. Architecture is frozen poetry, if not music.

While a work of poetry is “best words in its best order,” Prose is only composed of “best order of words.” In a nutshell, architecture is “concrete poetry” while civil engineering is more prosaic and practical public works undertaking. Both though have their own inherent purposes and functions in society. Architecture must have the triune principles of “beauty, utility and function.” An architect must be proficient in all three as a measure of competence, which means that he has the arsenal of an artistic genius and structural skills of an engineer. This is the classic epitome of the architect, as an ideal artist and technologist.

Beauty is the foundation of every work of art — like painting, sculpture, music and architecture. Without beauty as a primary element, no man-made craft or structure can become art. It is architecture’s first important element. An architect, being an artist, must be competent to resolve every imaginable architectural problems given to him regardless of size, be it a piece of furniture, a house or mega-structures like stadiums, factories, malls, urban mass housing or international airports.

Next is utility. A work of architecture should be structurally sound and safe to occupants. It should be earthquake and typhoon resistant. Architects should be proficient enough to know the maximum shear and moment forces that take place in floor beams and columns or stresses in steel trusses. Before the advent of the 21st century, architects designed their own structural systems.

Where would that place the civil engineers?

If civil engineers could act like architects in smaller projects, architects can also act like engineers in smaller projects like two-story or three-story houses. That is called autonomy. But it becomes different when bigger commercial buildings or high rise structures are concerned. They are the exclusive domain of structural engineers and not of ordinary civil engineers.

Yet, the architect, being the prime mover and principal architectural designer, is the prime professional. There can never be an outstanding work of architecture without the “magical wand of an architect.” Architecture is to the architect, while civil engineering is to the civil engineer. Architecture can never become a work of civil engineering, although a bridge when designed by an architect becomes a piece of “architecture” and not just a “prosaic” ordinary concrete or steel bridge. A bridge designed by an architect has the triune principles of “beauty, utility and function.”

The last one among the triune principles is function. A work of architecture should serve its intended purpose. It should be commodious enough for people who will dwell in it. It should satisfy the sense of salubrious living condition by providing good lighting, natural ventilation or artificial air-conditioning, good and clean water supply and sanitation. It should conform to the philosophy of Green Architecture as mandated by the National Building Code of the Philippines. It should also be safe in case of fire through the strict design conformity to the provisions of the National Fire Code of the Philippines and The Philippine Electrical Code. It should also be compliant to the Accessibility Law for the disabled.

There can never be architecture without its inherent structure. Architecture is defined as “the art and science of designing and constructing buildings.” Architects should be more proficient in architectural and structural matters.. Structural engineers have gained notoriety for going above board in matters of structural economy to cover fear of structural failure in case an imagined “super earthquake” rock their structures.

It’s common to hear civil engineers and contractors whining about architects having the prima-donna complex, which is not far from truth. A work of architecture cannot become a concrete reality without the collective undertakings of an army of workers, a platoon of project managers, consultants, contractors and sub-contractors. When the Istana Nurol Iman, the palace of the Sultan of Brunei, was completed in the 1980s, did people impressed by the beauty and greatness of its commodious scale ever ask who were those involved in finishing the dream of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah? Who among the visitors of that great palace asked the name of the general contractor who laid the golden inlaid of the exterior and interior of the structure? Did anybody ask their whereabouts? Most likely, many asked who the architect was. And the answer is the legendary Filipino architect Leandro V. Locsin.

Architects were called by the Greeks as “Master Builders.” The root word “arch” means “chief” while “tekton” means “builder.” Thus the term “architect.” How about the civil/structural engineers? The first civil/structural engineers are the architects. The term civil engineer came only in the 18th century when new metals like iron and steel were invented as structural supports for buildings.

The actual designing of civil works back then were done by architects cum engineers. They designed military structures like ramparts, stone bridges, water works, drainage systems, fortifications and war machines like catapults during the Roman times. They did city planning and classical architecture, too, during the time of the Italian Renaissance.

As records would show, even during the Byzantine periods, architects were mentioned to have designed Byzantine architectural masterworks like the Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul Turkey. Its huge dome was designed by the architects-mathematicians team of Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. The main feature of this great Byzantine Christian church (now a mosque) is its huge span of semi-flat dome made of stone masonry. Its interior lighting is perfect. The church’s outstanding structural ingenuity is still being studied by structural engineers the world over.

During the early Italian Renaissance of the late 15th century, an architectural and structural genius named Filippo Brunelleschi designed the Florence Cathedral in Florence, Italy. The main feature of the great cathedral is its huge pointed dome. In ancient structural engineering, the laws of science of structures like structural mechanics were not yet developed by modern physicist-mathematicians. Other laws were Castigliano’s principles, Maxwell’s Law, Fourrier’s series, Muller-Breslau’s principles, Hardy Cross and the Moment Distribution Methods to name a few. Architects create ingenious structural solutions by pure intuition and experimentation like modelling through intuitive observation of nature or by trial and error in the case of the Lorenzo Bernini when a part of the loggia of the St. Peter Church collapsed, and parts of the belfry cracked due to faulty design of the foundation.

How did Filippo Brunelleschi solve the structural problem of the huge masonry dome of the Florence Cathedral when structural steel and concrete were not yet invented? There was evidence to show that he studied correctly the stress of the structure of egg shells, melons and bitter gourds with its stable spherical forms. He then made structural models out of them. When you cut an end section of a variety of a bitter gourd, its ribbed support could be the bases of a pointed dome. This type of dome is the more stable compared with the flat dome of the Sophia Hagia Mosque. Even the dome of Sophia Hagia collapsed once or twice until the correct structural solution was perfected by its architects.

Even the high renaissance architecture — the St. Peter Cathedral in Rome — gave many troubles and nightmare to the great sculptor-architect Michelangelo Buonarotti. Its biggest structural nightmare is its huge domical mass of masonry and its vast scale. Even right after its completion, the dome started its gravitational compressive thrust, so that there was a great rush to fabricate giant iron chain links to be tied around the base of the dome to stop its impending collapse. Until this very day, the said chain remains.

Structural engineering today is the domain of the structural engineer. But architects should still learn to reclaim the art and science of structural designing as part and parcel of his general day to day architectural practice. After all, no law prohibits the architect from designing the structural framework of his architectural structures although on a limited scale. Former Professional Regulatory Commission (PRC) chief Eric Nubla, who also happens to be a registered architect-civil engineer, once said, “Learn to know when to call a structural consultant.” He could only mean that, if an architect has to design the structural system of his building or buildings, he should also learn to know his own limitation as a professional.

And why should architects have to learn basic mathematics like algebra, trigonometry, calculus and structural sciences in the first place, if we can’t even apply basic structural design into our architectural design project? It’s just fair that architects should learn to apply his/her basic knowledge of structural mechanics in their architectural design projects so they will not be at the mercy of ordinary civil engineers who are likely unproficient.

No civil engineer shall be generous enough to teach an architect the basics of structural analysis and design. Civil engineers want architects to be ignorant as much as possible, so they shall remain indispensable to master builders. But the civil engineer can surreptitiously continue practicing architecture illegally. There is no law prohibiting architects to design the structural system of architectural structures. But there is a law — Republic Act 9266 — mandating that only registered and licensed architects can practice architecture in the Philippines. So a civil engineer who attempts to practice architecture in the Philippines without the license to do so is criminally liable.

An architect’s knowledge of applied structural designing doesn’t mean doing away with the expert professional services of competent structural engineers. As I have said, not all civil engineers are competent structural engineers. As it was in the past, there are still architects today who are following the footsteps of great master builders such as Anthemius and Isidorus, Filippo Brunelleschi, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Christopher Wren with, of course, the aid of modern engineering sciences.

(The author is past district director of United Architects of the Philippines AP B-5 in 2010–2011 and UAP Camarines Chapter past president in 2000-2001. A practising architect and a structural designer of small architectural structures in Naga City and adjoining municipalities in Camarines Sur. He also writes architectural criticism, poetry, essays, political and social commentary occasionally in English, Tagalog, Bicol and Spanish.)

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