Theory and Engineering

The Next Eco City Conference was held in Seattle this past weekend, hosted and well-curated by the University of Washington.  Delayed 2 hours on a scheduled 3.5 hour Amtrak ride from Portland to Seattle (not a rare occurrence), I just barely made it to the opening panel discussion.  Yet Amtrak’s forced subordinate relationship to the shipping of non-animate freight served as an interesting segway to the opening session of the conference.

Continuing his discussion of landscape infrastructures, Pierre Bélanger made the statement that civil engineering – as dominant maker of urban centers along with planning – essentially operates without theory and generally always has.   In contrast to planning disciplines, civil engineering doesn’t appear to be guided by a set of meta ideas for how it goes about doing what it does.   Rather it operates on models of structural efficiency, which tend to create unifunctional works and urban monocultures.  “A road is typically approached as just a road”, is how Bélanger put it, producing “infrastructural apartheid.”

True?  Does civil engineering lack theory, or is it that its theory has relied too heavily on abstracted equations that put its works at a remove from the broader range of its own ramifications?  Are there theoretical works of civil engineering prior to current design research that we might be overlooking, yet worthy of consideration?  There must be some.

(Images: Oblivion 2n by David Maisel, cloverleaf aerial by City of Overland Park)


  1. i feel like belanger’s colleague, Antoine Picon at the GSD, has written a ton on this, explaining the theoretical development of paradigms of what is now civil engineering (especially “towards a history of technological thought”). Maybe there’s more to what he’s saying? I think he’s wrong- at least my first reaction.

  2. Completely uninformed first reaction: perhaps there is some sort of distinction to be drawn between the way in which a discipline is necessarily always informed by some kind of theory, even when it is unconscious theory that must be excavated after the fact in order to be understood, and a discipline which is actively engaged in reflection upon its own theoretical underpinnings? Might we say that (as I think Belanger is probably trying to) civil engineering tends towards the former rather than the latter? Surely there is indeed an intellectual history to civil engineering (and excavating it seems a fascinating task to me), but it must also matter whether or not the practitioners of that discipline are interested in reflecting on and engaging that history.

    My experience would be that, as un-reflective and unengaged with theory as landscape architects can be, the civil engineers — without making this a value judgment — surely are even more likely to treat their discipline as purely instrumental and theoretical. I wouldn’t miss that forest for a quibbling with whether there are in fact theories of civil engineering. Though it occurs to me that this — “has relied too heavily on abstracted equations that put its works at a remove from the broader range of its own ramifications” — might be suggesting that there is another kind of theory, which would not necessarily be recognized as such by someone used to the architectural manifestations of theory.

    (Thanks for the reference to Picon, fasla — here’s a weblink: Haven’t seen or read it before, but going to give it a shot.)

  3. some sort of distinction to be drawn between the way in which a discipline is necessarily always informed by some kind of theory and a discipline which is actively engaged in reflection upon its own theoretical underpinnings
    Exactly what I was trying to express with ‘meta ideas for how it [a discipline] goes about doing what it does’. This reminds me of a James Corner essay: “Origins of Theory”, where he makes the same distinction between craft (or ‘techne’ – the dimension of revelatory knowledge about the world) and motivation: “between the skill of making and the purpose that motivates the skill”, which is where the Picon article seems to elaborate on (yes – fantastic find Fasla – thanks).

    If I’m not totally bastardizing Belanger’s words, I think his point was indeed that not enough reflection has occurred within the engineering field itself. Expanding on his comments, he asked why is it that civil engineering has been so slow to utilize less structural or soft technologies for their instrumental value? There is no significant collection of meta-engineering reflection by engineers that we can point to to get why all this monumental stuff is the way it is from an instrumental point of view. Rather it’s all coming from outside disciplines commenting on it through general subservience to it (similar to the references we are citing). It’s the instrumentality itself that needs to be picked apart, which from what I’ve seen of Belanger’s work is exactly what his research is about.

  4. that’s a good point (criticim and theory of instrumentality itself, and its application) and further explanation of belanger’s thoughts (which i generally love).

    I have a theory on the situation- the modern civil engineering paradigm evolved at those french army engineer schools that Picon writes about. They were then writ large across the american continents by the US Army Corps (and those of other nations- the relationship between french army engineers, the US army corps, and even north american urbanism is pretty easy to track, at least on the surface). Problem was, this paradigm evolved in central France and assumed a particular type of geology (and society for that matter) that was stable over a given (long) period of time. And this was incredibly effective, for the most part, which is why it attained such hegemony.

    but of course, france has nothing like the mississippi delta, or the colorado river, or the andes mountains. and though there were a lot of different urbanisms that developed in these places over time and could have been grafted together with the french army engineer/modern civil engineer, they were largely just disregarded or lost. If we simply recovered some of those, we would fine a lot of promising possibilities for dealing with our current situations- geologies that are not stable (california and mississippi deltas) water shortages and aging dams (southwestern US), and even simply urban transportation infrastructures (US freeway system, especially when it comes into our cities).

    I’m interested to see more of belanger’s studies on instrumentality and technique. I think, of course, that authentically american urbanisms are a more appropriate place to start developing a critical theory and expanded engineering practice, moreso than importing the recent trends from the rhine river valley, but there are probably many great places to start.

  5. This is a very interesting theory. I trust that we will be exploring it further.

  6. CE students get stuffed with mathematical and mechanical theory. It’s more accurate to say that CE “has relied too heavily on abstracted equations that put its works at a remove from the broader range of its own ramifications”. In practice, CE is most concerned with safety, cost, efficiency and durability. Technically/creatively, CE designers generally have their hands tied by local & state regulations and a limited project budget on just about every aspect of the design to be performed.

    I’m still working on what a civil engineering meta-idea might look like, but I suppose it would be primarily concerned with the planning of civil infrastructure and/or how best to integrate civil infrastructure with natural systems. Are Belanger and your post saying that CEs should be coming up with more and better ideas for multi-functioning and ecologically compatible civil infrastructure so that planners and developers have a better civil infrastructure palette to work with? Or is it more like the field of civil infrastructure planning should become more informed about stuff like the costs & benefits of bicycle lanes, light rail, etc. so that a better variety of transportation alternatives are made available to the public?

    There are plenty of examples of a transition to make civil infrastructure more ecologically compatible and multi-functioning, like pervious pavements, wastewater treatment wetlands, rain gardens, materials recycling, dedicated bicycle lanes, etc. I’m not sure if the slow pace at which this transition is occurring is due more to a lack of CE meta ideas, or to a combination of politics & environmental skepticism, product development & costs, and concerns about safety & lawsuits.

    From what I remember, civil engineering education is much more focused on CE as a craft that makes individual things for specific sites than as a larger-scale infrastructure planning discipline. Personally, I wish I would have had more exposure to infrastructure planning, ecological engineering, and landscape ecology and less to differential equations, advanced integral calculus, etc.

  7. Thanks for the comments Carter. What sticks with me is the extent of technics expected of engineers (“students get stuffed with mathematical and mechanical theory”), the isolation of design craft at singular scales (“makes individual things for specific sites [rather] than as a larger-scale infrastructure planning discipline”) and the logistical hand-tying (“by local & state regulations and a limited project budget on just about every aspect of the design to be performed”). Leaving out the hand-tying for the moment, I would describe a typical design education (landscape in particular) as somewhat the inverse of what you describe for the training of engineers. I sympathize with how much falls on CEs to make things work – whether for standard procedure or more soft systems. We expect it from them all the time. Comments hint at the fact that engineers are so occupied with the complexity of the agendas handed to them, that its difficult to find mental space to get all that meta about it, or perhaps the meta skills just are not honed because they are not asked for. Its not that they don’t think about it or don’t wish for things to be explored in other ways. Thus it still strikes me as peculiar just how little the field of engineering meta discusses the condition of its dominant instrumentality, or just how agonizing that condition can be in how it is put to service. In design discourse all of the roles and discussion is reversed.
    Back to Belanger’s presentation…so the large lecture hall was full, and at one point someone up front asked how many CEs were in the audience. 3 to 5 people out of the entire audience at a college campus raised their hands. We could attribute that to a lot of things that don’t fault the engineers. Anthropologists love to talk about how work specialization is required due to our growing complexity, which forms equally new problems. It seems a productive way to interrogate the doing and the meta is about how we articulate our overlapping relationships. That sounds a bit like a platitude, but i think worth placing in this discussion relative to who speaks for who.

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