from section iv

Passing On What
I Have Learnt

Looking back, the journey I have described through forty years of my working life makes a lot more sense than I had expected. There is a shape to it now that I hadn’t seen before. I experienced many moments of challenge and uncertainty, but I never wanted the journey to stop. Meeting challenges and staying afloat is how you learn and grow.

My earliest work at Ove Arup and BuroHappold let me see that engineering is an experiment, not just a business. My first job on the complexity of the Mannheim gridshell showed me that buildings could be any shape, and that nature was a good guide to finding the right form. Working on projects that were inspired by Frei Otto made me realise that nature was to be respected rather than overridden. I started looking for engineering solutions that emulated nature wherever I could.

In the first fifteen years of my career I was building up experience and learning from great mentors like Ian Liddell and Michael Dickson. In London I found my own feet. Projects started to reflect my own sense of what was right. I found great collaborators. Foster + Partners provided the strongest possible support by creating an environment that encourages engineering ideas and truths that influence design. It was a journey which culminated with the Khan Shatyr—the big tent on the steppes of Asia.

Having made this journey, I wanted to help others find engineering just as exciting as I had. At university I found engineering to be seriously dull. It appeared to be about scientific theory rather than natural laws, and we were encouraged to do what others had done before. My experience at work told me that engineering can be so much more than this.

By 2008 I started to teach. Imperial College in London gave me a testbed from which opportunities sprang. Yet, only recently have I realised that I should pass on my methods as well as my enthusiasm. I want to share what I found to be most useful in the quest of becoming an engineer. Being an engineer who can influence design means taking part in meaningful co-creations and making a positive impact.

Through teaching I have learned so much – things that years of practice didn’t tell me. I have seen how our ability to think creatively, imaginatively, freely depends on having the right tools. Successful engineers need to be able to work within multi-faceted parameters – systems of systems. They might need to build specialist skills in one or other branch of engineering but to apply this in a complex, multi-system context, they need tools that help them cope with the complexity, communicate it and have dialogue with others across this complex scene. I can now see that the sketches (I use in my conversations with myself as well as with others) are my coping mechanism to achieve some level of clarity. This is an essential part of an engineer’s tool box. It needs to be taught.