The Art and Sense of Engineering

Activity: Talks and presentationsConference presentations


In a speech in 1964 the famous Danish structural engineer Christen Ostenfeld ranged engineers into three tiers. At the top of this list was the ruler of engineering art. This gifted individual participated in cultural life or was artistically gifted. Ostenfeld also stated that a sensitive disposition was an advantage for an engineer as this allows this person to find the bridge, which fits the landscape. According to Ostenfeld, a great engineer should have a rich imagination which was under control. (Ostenfeld 1975)
In this paper I will trace ideas of bridge aesthetics through engineering textbooks, news articles as well as educational material in the twentieth century with a focus on Denmark. Using newly digitized material, we can see how the structural engineer framed the aesthetics and attempted to build a sense for good aesthetics and structures in engineering students. In many engineering disciplines, aesthetics was not a consideration. But creating a bridge was not only seen as a matter of material, economics, equations and balancing forces but also involved personal traits and cultural disposition. Aesthetics was not a stand-alone aspects, it was intertwined with new materials as well as engineering efforts to save on materials. The results were slimmer structures with longer span. The outcomes were often seen as artworks.
In this period, engineering methodologies evolved and new computer based tools such as Building Information Modeling brought changes to the role of the engineer. Important parts of engineering calculations and drawing moved from the hand of the engineer to the computer. Drawing by hand was no longer an essential part of engineering education. But the engineers still called for a sense for the good solution as the computer had no intuition.
Also with the advancing infrastructure, traffic and environmental issues in the twentieth century came growing complexity and a growing number of narrow expert specialists in bridge design. In 1986 architect Ib Møller wrote that “building b ridges demands open and loyal ping-pong collaboration between the many implicated parties’ and described the risk that you had ” … a number of good stand-alone solutions, but a deficient end result” In the paper, I will also look into the relationship between architects and engineers. This was a contested space and called for negotiations across interfaces. It was a story of knowledge circulation and doing authority.
Period24 Oct 201927 Oct 2019
Event titleThe Society for the History of Technology: Annual Meeting 2019 : Exploring the Interface between Technology, Art, and Design
Event typeConference
LocationMilano, Italy
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Structural Engineering
  • History of technology
  • Engineering Design
  • engineering education
  • engineering science