Interview with prof. Mike Schlaich on Engineering, Creativity and Future
17/04/2012

A wonderful medieval city. This was the first impression of Vilnius on Professor Mike Schlaich from Technical University of Berlin during his first visit to the Baltic country. In the PhD Students’ Workshop: Advances in Civil Engineering Research and Practice”, hosted by Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, the guest from Germany shared his vast engineering experience acquired while working at and heading the company of structural engineering Schlaich Bergermann and Partners.

What is the world-class engineer’s perspective on the profession of an engineer? What aspects in the field of engineering should we foster in order to become successful engineers? What impression does VGTU leave on a person who considers himself to be lucky to choose the best specialty in the world?


How did you choose to become an engineer?

I am not one of those people who at the age of 5 already know what they want to become. Frankly, even today I have some doubts. When I was 18, I was captivated by what my father was doing and thought I would just do the same.  It is as simple as that. Today I know that this decision was not bad because I think that Structural Engineering is a wonderful field. And I encourage my students to continue what they have chosen because Structural Engineering has a great advantage of materializing your creative ideas. You make a sketch, you make a calculation and later on it is turned into a big structure - a bridge or a house, etc. What you create is not just a little component of a large machine but rather the whole. Structural Engineering is one of a few professions where you can actually produce something mature. Furthermore, in this field you have scientific basis on one hand and on the other hand you have a creative component. A very few professions combine the two. I think that combination of science and creativity makes Civil Engineering more special than other fields and, at the same time, puts more responsibility because very often objects built are of a large scale – houses, bridges, tunnels and streets. It is important to stress both their scale as well as their duration. What we produce lasts for hundreds of years, which brings even a greater responsibility on us.

Could you say that the role of engineers is significant in our world? 

Indeed, engineers are responsible for the entire built infrastructure. Every time you go out of a house you see roads, tunnels, streets, bridges, walls, and your house, all of which are designed and structured by engineers. Thus, I think the role of engineers is important because we have a significant impact on society and it can be a positive or negative one. Engineer’s responsibility on the culture of a building is the reason why we emphasize and teach creativity. 

What would you say to a young person who is considering choosing this profession? What is the future of it?

Well, first of all, we will always need buildings, so the future is guaranteed. Second, there is a continuous progress and different kind of new materials such as high-strength fibres, carbon fibres, new plastics, and new glass materials are used. In the building industry, we consume a considerable part of energy and resources which are available for us. So if you want to go towards sustainability, you can contribute by building lighter structures. The lighter you build, the less resources you need.  Therefore, I think we play an important role and there is a big future of more sustainable buildings. Furthermore, we have an urgent need for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy.  This makes up to fifty per cent of structure. Windmills with a shaft and all the support for solar energy is part of structural engineering. Clearly, there is a big future for structural engineering.

Should engineers concentrate their thoughts on generating “green” ideas? Is it possible to realize ecological ideas when you are a professional engineer?

Certainly. First of all, you have to learn mathematics and mechanics. Studying engineering is difficult but the reward is great - a very fulfilling job which allows you to actually contribute to a building culture and society by building more sustainable structures, etc.  So the answer is yes.

What are the challenges of today’s and future engineering?

It is hard to say. I have already mentioned which direction we should take – towards lighter building, renewable energy, and new materials. In addition to these technical challenges, administrative challenges also exist. We are getting more and more codes in engineering and we must work with these codes and regulations. Sooner or later these codes and regulations will strangle us. This is one of the reasons why we are becoming more bureaucratic rather than creative. Thus, I think that a future challenge will be to simplify these codes, make them easier to use and treat engineers as responsible members of society rather than  users of recipes.

Let’s talk about design and creativity. You have mentioned that in engineering the two go together. How it is possible when engineering is so mathematically accurate, while creativity has no boundaries?

What I am trying to show is that even though we have a very reliable basis of scientific and technical knowledge, there is a range of structural possibilities. There are countless solutions for one problem. You can use your creativity to consider a large variety of structural solutions and come up with the most appropriate idea for a particular situation. If you look at famous engineers, perhaps, the most well-known is Gustav Eiffel, who designed Eiffel Tower. I mean that Eiffel Tower is an example of pure engineering structure. Since Eiffel was widely known for his successfully realized steel bridges, he was asked to build a tower in Paris. If you look closely at this tower, you will see that it is not purely structurally correct. Eiffel did some shapes that he found nice even though they are not one hundred per cent optimal in terms of structure.  In my opinion, conscious errors made by engineers to achieve the best aesthetical expression are completely legitimate.

Is engineer responsible for a design too?

Engineer is responsible for the design of a structure. As we say, the art of a building cannot be divided. There is an architect who is responsible for his area and there is an engineer who is responsible for the structure. If they work together and they both pursue a good quality product, you get a holistic quality. It is a misconception that an architect creates a design, whereas engineer only calculates.

Could we say that a good engineer is a creative engineer?

Definitely.

Is it a key to success?

Yes, and I think it is not a secret. Every child is creative. Look at how we play with toys as children. All we have to do is not to destroy this creativity but rather foster it. I suggest when you enter university, maintain your creativity. It is not difficult. However, at the same time, learn scientific and technical aspects. You will become strong only if you master both of these tools.

Could you tell us which of your projects were the most engaging, the most interesting and requiring creativity?

It is difficult to say. It depends a lot on the context. Sometimes you work with an artist and get a result which is completely different from the one that you might expect to achieve while working in India on a road bridge within completely different boundary conditions. I think there are many examples of challenging and satisfying projects. We always seek that each of our new projects has to take a small step further. It does not matter which project we work on. The idea is to improve it a little bit and, as a result, every project becomes satisfying.
The founders of our company Schlaich and Bergermann are very proud of the bridge in India because it was a world-record bridge. Their goal was to design a cable supported bridge that has not been built in India before. When they finished the design, they found out that in Kolkata there were neither weldable steel, nor high strength bonds available. Thus, they had to redesign the entire bridge to a riveting one. Riveting was a technology historically available in India. In addition to this, they redesigned the entire bridge so that it could be built with local labour. So while building a world-record bridge, local Indian labour and local Indian materials were used. As far as I know, that was the most satisfying project for the founders and we have been continuing this spirit in a way by trying to integrate these ideas into all of our projects.

Are the most challenging projects the most interesting for engineers?

 I could say that projects with the most complex boundary conditions are interesting. If the local circumstances and boundary conditions are very tough, you are forced to think of something new to overcome the problems. So the more difficult the work is, the higher the chance that it becomes interesting.

And this is where the creativity appears?

Necessarily.

What are the differences in engineering in various continents and regions of the world? Where are the biggest opportunities?

This is under constant change. Six years ago, when I became a professor, there was a crisis in German building industry. I told all my diploma students that I had strong doubts if they could get a job position in Germany, if they were to graduate at that particular period of time. I suggested them to better go to Dubai or Spain, however, today Dubai and Spain are experiencing crisis, whereas in Germany  there is so much work to do right now. It has changed again and it always does. Naturally, there are a lot of construction works going on in China and India now, so you could find interesting jobs there. As for energy production, I am sure that sooner or later we will get renewable energy from Northern Africa. A lot of opportunities are there. If you look at Europe, the infrastructure needs further development – highways, airports, bridges, etc. There are many future opportunities for engineers in Europe.

 

Does the attitude towards engineering differ in different continents?

In a way engineering is a universal concept. A bridge needs to be a good bridge. It has to hold up anywhere in the world. So basically a bridge in China does not differ much from a bridge in Germany. Differences depend on the context and local boundary conditions and sometimes they are cultural.  Sometimes we use different materials because the local industry has more experience working with a particular material, e.g. concrete or steel.  And if you have to paint a bridge, choose the colour which fits the surroundings best. One has to bear in mind that the perception of colours varies in various cultures. As I have already mentioned, codes always change, but at least religion does not have any significant effect on bridges.

You are a professor at Berlin Technical University and you have met some doctoral students here in VGTU. What they should strive for if they want to become really successful engineers?  What are the most important things in a study process?

I do not think that there is one issue. First of all, if I compare this University to other European universities, I see no difference. As far as I have seen this morning in the lab (Building Structures Laboratory, Civil Engineering Research Centre), equipment of this University completely meets European standards and does not differ from other universities.  If you ask me what students should do in order to become successful engineers, first of all, they must work hard and this is applicable to students of any country. I would definitely recommend to learn English and, if there is a possibility, participate in ERASMUS exchange programme, e.g. go to Berlin, Madrid, London, or wherever you could familiarize yourself  with foreign countries, their cultures  and languages. English and an exchange programme are the two things what I recommend. This recommendation is universal and it does not apply to Structural Engineering only. As for structural engineering, I would say the same - travel and observe. In order to get more conscious, go to Switzerland and look at bridges, go to London and look at famous buildings.

The final question is ‘what should we concentrate on to achieve the best result?’

I am very impressed by everything I have seen here, so I do not see any reason to advice in a sense of criticism. What I hope for is a future collaboration. I hope that we Europeans continue to work together. That is my hope. 

Thank you.

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