About the Author

Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips is a 2nd year PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and is part of the Structural Engineering and Materials Program area. He earned both a B.S. and M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Virginia Tech. His graduate research focuses on resilient seismic structural systems. Specifically, his dissertation is on the development of a novel steel plate shear wall system through experimental validation and computational modeling.More about Adam ...

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One of the fundamental metrics by which a society is judged is the effectiveness of its infrastructure systems. Infrastructure is defined as, “The basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly” [1]. It is the role of civil engineers and architects to ensure the proper functioning of this infrastructure. In general terms, architects are involved only in urban planning and building projects. Whereas, civil engineers are involved in all infrastructure projects including, but not limited to, buildings, bridges, highways, water treatment centers, energy plants, and sewage management systems. Since civil engineers are tasked with such a broad range of infrastructure projects the field is split into six general specialties; structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, environmental and wastewater engineering, transportation and highway engineering, construction management, and land development. This paper focuses on the educational practices typical to structural engineering.

The main responsibility of an architect is to design the exterior form, or shape, of a structure. It is the structural engineer’s job to design the load carrying elements, or “skeleton”, of the structure using modern building materials to resist environmental and service loads. The best structural engineers accomplish this while preserving the architects given exterior form. Productive collaboration between architects and civil engineers is crucial for a well-planned and successful project. However, it is infamously common for architects and engineers to have bad relationships. Poor collaboration often stems from the architectural form being in conflict with structural engineering design. Major disagreements between the architecture and engineering teams can result in missed project deadlines, cost overruns, unsatisfied clients, and often legal action.

At most Universities in the United States architecture and engineering education are taught in separate colleges. Their curriculum is wildly different and there is little collaboration between the two fields. Architecture students are taught architecture history, art, and graphic design. While engineering students are taught math, mechanics, and material science. The modern engineering praxis is to train students to prioritize economy and efficiency over everything; especially aesthetics.

A theory for the root cause of the common disagreements between the two professions is the difference in formal education. Moreover, that structural engineers are trained to disregard aesthetic form when designing the load carrying frame. This results in two different perspectives on how to approach projects and is compounded by the fact that entry level professionals have little experience in working with non-engineers to accomplish tasks. Structural engineering education should not separate the “art” and “science” of design. By integrating aesthetics as a design criterion into the structural engineering curricula we can produce engineers who possess sound technical knowledge while still having an appreciation for artistic form.

Switzerland is the perfect place to investigate how integrating art into engineering produces top-notch designers. Starting from its outset in 1855 at ETH Zurich, the Swiss civil engineering educational curricula has combined the historically technical German engineering education methods with the French graphical design methods. Two of ETH Zurich’s first civil engineering appointments, Carl Culmann and Wilhelm Ritter, taught structures as both an aesthetic and scientific enterprise [2]. This educational system produced generations of successful designers who created architectural masterpieces by advancing engineering technology. These designers are now regarded by contemporary architects and engineers as having crossed the lines between engineering and architecture. Two such individuals, are the Swiss bridge engineers Robert Maillart and Christian Menn. They revolutionized bridge form, technology, and construction throughout the 1900’s

Robert Maillart was described as “an engineer in the truest sense of the word. He placed scientific theory and scientific findings entirely at the disposal of architecture: the first was his means, and the other his goal” [3]. He was the first designer to exploit the intrinsic mechanical properties of reinforced concrete to create long-span, deck-stiffened arch bridges. His Salginatobel Bridge (1930) has been declared an International Civil Engineering Landmark and is studied to this day by both architects and engineers. Maillart is the only designer I know of that has been honored as an engineer, by the American Society of Civil Engineers, as an architect, by the Royal Institute of British Architects, and as an artist, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Christian Menn, like Maillart, was formally trained in structural engineering at ETH Zurich. His bridges further built on Maillart’s work by introducing pre-stressing technology into arch bridge construction. Menn is credited as being one of the most influential developers of pre-stressed concrete design and construction methods. Pre-stressing has allowed for longer unsupported spans and for cantilever construction; which eliminates costly scaffolding and form-work [2]. Menn was also very concerned with aesthetics and saw bridges as works of art. For example, he used haunched arches, even when not structurally necessary, because he believed they produced better lines at the girder to column interface. He prioritized a graceful and flowing form at the cost of additional material and structural efficiency.

Maillart and Menn showcase an integrated approach to design where engineering mechanics inform architectural vision. While studying in Switzerland and Italy with the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) I spent some time exploring if the Swiss or Italian engineering education system still encourages artistic creativity. The Universities that we visited as part of the GPP trip that have civil engineering programs were the Swiss federal University ETH Zurich, the Swiss applied science University SUPSI, and the Italian University Politecnico di Milano. In the following sections I discuss my observations from those Universities from least to most successful at integrating form into engineering curricula.

ETH Zurich

During the visit to ETH Zurich we ventured out to the science city campus to see where the Architecture students study. Their design studio had the same feel as Virginia Tech’s studio in relation to students working spaces, building models, and display boards. However, the ETH Zurich studio had a few additional details that showcased the Swiss tradition of integrating the technical with artistic design. For instance, in the hallway of their architecture building was a full-scale reinforcement cage for a reinforced concrete post-tensioned bridge section. These reinforcement cages are typical in pre-stressed bridges, like the ones Christian Menn designed. Additionally, in the ETH Zurich curriculum, architecture students must pass engineering mechanics examinations starting in year one. For comparison, Virginia Tech architecture students aren’t introduced to structural engineering until third year.

Given the fast paced nature of the GPP trip, the group’s time in Zurich only permitted for a surface exploration of ETH Zurich’s engineering programs. However, based on their website and listed curricula for civil engineering there seems to be little integration of art or architecture. It is structured in a similar way as the American system, if not focusing even more on technical courses due to a smaller number of elective credits. This seems to be a divergence from the historical Swiss tradition previously discussed. However, as I did not attend any lectures or interact with any civil engineering faculty, I cannot say for certain that the idea of engineering as applied art is fully forgotten. As far as I could tell, there is little opportunities for collaboration between architecture students and engineering students.


The applied science University SUPSI in southern Switzerland was the only applied science school that we visited that offered a civil engineering degree. The underlying purpose and mission of the applied science Universities is to train students to go directly into professional careers using practical, hand-on methods. SUPSI has multiple industry partners whom provide input to coursework material and offer internship opportunities to students. During our discussions with SUPSI faculty it was mentioned multiple times that they emphasize multi-disciplinary classroom experiences. Their website states that their curricula is, “closely linked to professional practice” and, “students learn how to work autonomously and in an interdisciplinary environment” [4]. While no detailed examples of interdisciplinary study were provided, it is my guess that students from SUPSI are likely well exposed to architect and engineer relationships in practice.

Politecnico di Milano

Upon arriving at Politecnico di Milano in Italy it was apparent that they emphasized technical studies in every degree option. Of the six Schools, three focus on architecture; the School of Architecture and Society, the School of Civil Architecture, and the School of Architectural Engineering. Since they integrate varying amounts of engineering theory into their architectural design programs they do not explicitly have a structural engineering curriculum. They do have a School of Civil, Environmental, and Land Management Engineering; but it is mostly focused on training the other specialties of civil engineering practice. It is not possible to study structural design at Politecnico di Milano without acquiring some form of architectural training and likewise it is not possible to graduate in architecture without basic engineering knowledge.

The Politecnico di Milano approach puts the level of technical training in relation to artistic training on a spectrum. Where one extreme is the School of Architecture and Society which resembles a U.S. architecture program of mostly art and design with supplementary training in engineering mechanics. The other extreme is the School of Architectural Engineering which focuses mainly on engineering skills and designing with common building materials. The School of Civil Architecture seems to be somewhere in between, offering degrees such as a bachelor’s in Architecture of Design or a master’s in Project Management.


In conclusion, the Swiss Universities seem to have abandoned the view that artistic creativity plays an important role in scientific fields. Their modern civil engineering educational system is very similar to what is in the United States. Politecnico di Milano has the most integrated programs between art and science. Providing a spectrum of degrees between pure architecture and pure engineering means students have an opportunity to be creative in both. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. system which makes students choose between the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering from the beginning.

During a lecture at the University of Basel, by Rector Antonio Loprieno, he described the challenges facing engineering education today. His perspective was that when the polytechnic institutes were first created (ETH in 1854 & Virginia Tech in 1872) they were able to make broad societal impact by only studying basic science and developing engineering technology. However, the industrial revolution is over a century old and the modern engineer can no longer only view problems through a purely technical lens. Rather, modern engineering problems need to be viewed in societal and global context. Politecnico di Milano’s approach is the best one for addressing this issue. Today’s architects and engineers can no longer afford to study only their specific subjects without at least recognizing the multi-disciplinary complexities. Future infrastructure will need to be designed to address a myriad of modern global problems, such as climate change, resource scarcity, and refugee migration. These major problems are going to require innovative solutions and training civil engineers to embrace artistic creativity is one way to encourage future professionals to think in bold new ways.


[1] Merriam-Webster. Web. 17 August 2015.
[2] Billington, David P., 1983. The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.
[3] “Robert Maillart”. Structurae.net. Web. 17 August 2015.
[4] “Civil Engineering”. www.SUPSI.ch. Web. 26 August 2015.