• Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

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Blurring the lines between art and engineering

Engineering can be a beautiful thing, so it’s hardly surprising that from time to time it crosses over into the world of art. Here we look at the creators behind some of the most iconic designs that take excellence of form and function to the limit.

There are some feats of engineering that are so visually pleasing we instinctively call them works of art. And yet, when we make this statement in the 21st century, it seems that we are crossing the frontier into a different land. There’s this idea that science is objective while art is subjective, the former a function of logical reasoning, the latter of interpretation.

But there are, it seems, artist and engineers who never got the memo about these allegedly non-overlapping domains, as is proven by the existence of some breath-taking industrial aesthetics. The UK’s largest sculpture – the ArcelorMittal Orbit – is recognisably a feat of complex engineering, while some of the most stylish of our electronic gadgetry was designed by a man who went on to become chancellor of the Royal College of Art.

Some engineers were artists at heart. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge is as much the product of aesthetic sensibilities as it is of an engineering brain. Some artists had a soft spot for engineering. The Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner was conceptualised by an art school graduate who designed jewellery and worked in advertising. When it comes to architects such as Renzo Piano or car designers like Alec Issigonis, it’s hard to tell where the line between art and engineering sits.

Here are six of engineering’s wonderful creations seen from the biographical perspective of their creators. Plus, we’ve made room for one of the greatest artist-engineers of all time – Leonardo da Vinci – the man who would take an occasional break from painting the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper to invent lens grinders, hydraulic machines, bridges, flying machines and musical instruments. Leonardo once said, “poor is the pupil that does not surpass his master”, which can be taken as meaning that he expected his work to be eclipsed in the generations to come. Here we have the contenders.

The Shard, London

Image credit: Dreamstime

Renzo Piano



BACKGROUND: Career architect

FAMOUS FOR: Centre Georges Pompidou, New York Times Building, Shard London Bridge

Towering above the sprawl of markets and railway yards between Borough and London Bridge, the 72-storey Shard has been the UK’s tallest building for the decade since it was inaugurated in 2012. Standing at 309.6m (1,016ft) barely competes in terms of size with record-breaking skyscrapers globally, but when it comes to design, Italian architect Renzo Piano invested London with a landmark structure to rank alongside New York’s Empire State Building or Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Now in his mid-80s, Piano shot to fame in the 1970s after working with modernist Richard Rogers on Paris’s ‘inside-out’ Centre Pompidou, described by National Geographic as “love at second sight”. Look twice and the factory-inspired building has its functional pipework for elements such as plumbing, power and waste management on the outside. As Piano said, the structure that houses France’s Musée National d’Art Moderne is “not a building, but a town where you find everything – lunch, great art, a library, great music”.

Turning his attention to post- Millennium London, Piano’s original sketch for what would become the Shard was hastily roughed-out on the back of a menu. The architect disliked modern tall buildings and wanted to do something different, and so came up with the concept of a spire rising from the River Thames. So different that among the objectors were both the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage.

The man who studied architecture in both Florence and Milan has never been shy of controversy, and while the Guardian called the Shard architectural “anarchy”, the Telegraph retorted that the Shard “is a much better building than most of the fakes below it”.

mini car

Image credit: Gettyimages

Sir Alexander ‘Alec’ Issigonis

NATIONALITY: British-Greek

OCCUPATION: Automotive designer and engineer

BACKGROUND: Engineering

FAMOUS FOR: Morris Minor, Austin Mini and Mini Moke

Whenever a new list of iconic British designs is released, you can rely on the Austin Mini – or simply the Mini – being on it. With more than 5.5 million units sold, it’s the best-selling British car in history. But the vehicle that would symbolise the first wave of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1960s started life as an austerity design in the wake of fuel rationing created by the Suez Crisis.

With the original designation XC/9003, this modest front-wheel drive evolved into a style icon. Fashion model Twiggy’s image is inextricably linked to hers, while George Harrison’s appeared in the 1967 movie ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, and the chase sequence in ‘The Italian Job’ is unforgettable. At the turn of the Millennium, Alec Issigonis’s automotive vision came second in the Car of the Century award, beaten only by Henry Ford’s Model T.

Issigonis – known to his friends as ‘the Greek god’ – studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London having failed his mathematics exams three times, before going straight into automotive design. By 1936 he was working at Morris Motors in Cowley where, after the Second World War, he designed the Morris Minor. In 1955, he moved to the British Motor Corporation (BMC), to work on a family of three experimental cars – the ‘XC’ range – of which the XC/9003 was to be a ‘small town car’.

His success with the Mini meant that he soon became technical director of BMC, but when the company became part of British Leyland he was effectively demoted into the role of ‘special developments director’.

Although famous for creating the Mini, Issigonis was far prouder of his Morris Minor, which he considered to be a luxury car for the working class.

Arcelormittal Orbit Olympic Park London

Image credit: Dreamstime

Sir Anish Kapoor

NATIONALITY: British Indian


BACKGROUND: Art and design

FAMOUS FOR: Cloud Gate, Sky Mirror, ArcelorMittal Orbit, Temenos

Known as the Orbit Tower and associated in the public imagination with London’s 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the ArcelorMittal Orbit is both an observation tower and one of the most conspicuously ‘engineer-y’ pieces of large-scale public art in the UK’s capital city. The landmark came about in 2008 when the then mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell decided that the proposed Olympic Park in East London needed ‘something extra’.

With Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor providing the artistry and Arup the engineering, Orbit combines sculpture and architecture in a 114.5m-high (376ft) piece of art with a price tag of £19.1m. Inevitably, the UK’s tallest sculpture was criticised as a vanity project, while its merit as a public art installation was questioned. Today it stands as a permanent reminder of the Games.

Kapoor the artist started off as Kapoor the engineer, but due to his inability to master mathematics he came to the UK from India to attend the Chelsea School of Art and Design. With interests in both fields, Kapoor has spent most of his career collaborating with engineers and architects, stating that his public art is neither purely sculpture nor functional construction. While he says that “one doesn’t make art for other people”, Kapoor is concerned with what the viewer is confronted with: “We live in a fractured world. I’ve always seen it as my role as an artist to attempt to make wholeness.”

Recipient of countless awards, Kapoor was knighted in 2013 for services to visual arts and has featured in the British cultural icons section of the British passport since 2015.

It is believed Piano first sketched his idea of the Shard on a restaurant napkin while meeting property developer Irvine Sellar in March 2000

The structural and mechanical services of the Centre Pompidou, a cultural landmark in Paris, are visible on the exterior of the building

The Mini was a style icon in the 1960s. Here, actor Peter Sellers drives a luxury version built for his wife, Britt Ekland.

Sir Jonathan ‘Jony’ Ive

NATIONALITY: British American

OCCUPATION: Industrial designer

BACKGROUND: Art and design

FAMOUS FOR: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad

If ever there was an archetype for the meeting of engineering and artistic mindsets in one designer it would be Jony Ive. His top-line CV in one sentence could read: former chief design officer at Apple, co-creator of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad; served from 2017 as chancellor of the Royal College of Art, which described Ive as “responsible for the look and feel of all Apple products, from hardware and packaging to the user interface, as well as major architectural projects including the company’s new campus in California, known as Apple Park”. There’s more to Ive than this: he holds 5,000 patents, has honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, and has been appointed Royal Designer for Industry.

Coming from an engineering background – his grandfather was an engineer and his father a silversmith – Ive’s teenage love of cars drove his desire to become a designer. After studying industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic, he joined the Hoxton Square start-up Tangerine, where he designed toilets, one of which was rejected for being ‘too modern’. When Apple became a client, Ive was able to switch fruit in the early 1990s and the rest is history.

Influenced by the early 20th century Bauhaus – ‘less is more’ – school of art, Ive is well known as a minimalist, not only in his designs for Apple, but also in his personal appearance. It’s rumoured that these two striking visual styles came together when he shaved his head on being promoted to VP of Industrial Design at Apple at the age of 34, prompting GQ magazine to include Ive in its list of the top 100 ‘Most Powerful Bald Men in the World’.

Queen Elizabeth 2 retired from active Cunard service

Image credit: Gettyimages

James ‘Leslie’ Gardner


OCCUPATION: Exhibition and museum designer

BACKGROUND: Commercial design, advertising

FAMOUS FOR: Festival of Britain, Pilkington Glass Museum, QE2

The Queen Elizabeth 2 is a retired British ocean liner that plied its transatlantic trade for four continuous decades at the end of the 20th century. Now a floating hotel in Dubai, the QE2, as it is universally known, was designed both inside and out by James Gardner who, while well enough known for his work on the 1951 Festival of Britain and the decorations for the late Queen’s coronation, was hardly recognised in the world of shipping. The ship that was requisitioned for service as a troop carrier in the Falklands War was the brainchild of a designer from the Westminster School of Art who had created jewellery for Cartier, drawn advertisements for Shell and illustrated Puffin Picture Books for children.

After the Second World War, Gardner became closely associated with the Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council), working on the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, and the Battersea Park pleasure gardens. This set him on a trajectory of design for industrial fairs, producing stands for Ideal Home exhibitions and the United Kingdom Board of Trade. He was instrumental in presenting British industrial identity at both the Brussels World Fair in 1958 and Expo 67 in Montreal. His ‘Story of the Earth’ exhibition for the Geological Museum in London in the early 1970s is seen as a breakthrough in science museum design.

Although famous for his work on the QE2, Gardner’s commission to design a ‘very big yacht’ that looked ‘sleek and purposeful’ is almost a distraction from the main thrust of his career, which was to work out how to display engineering in both the business-to-business environment and public exhibitions.

Clifton suspension bridge

Image credit: Gettyimages

Isambard Kingdom Brunel


OCCUPATION: Civil engineer

BACKGROUND: Engineering, clockmaking

FAMOUS FOR: Great Western Railway, Clifton Suspension Bridge, SS Great Britain

Commuters arriving into London’s Paddington Station will be greeted by a life-size bronze statue of a seated engineer with mutton-chop whiskers and a top hat. The engineer is the giant of 19th-century British industry Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose most famous work is arguably the Clifton Suspension Bridge that spans the Avon Gorge linking Bristol to Somerset. The Grade I-listed building, opened in 1864, is now a symbol of Britain. Its creator was a visionary: “I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges.” Controversial and outspoken, Brunel once claimed that his greatest feat was to get a team of 15 planning engineers to agree with each other.

Son of the equally legendary engineer Marc, Brunel grew up in an atmosphere of debt – his father even threatened to work for the Russian Empire in order to restore his finances. But the government of the day discharged the debt, and the younger Brunel went to study in Paris at Lycée Henri-IV under the master clockmaker and horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet. Shortly after, he worked with his father on the Thames Tunnel to connect Rotherhithe to Wapping, which is still in use.

By 1833, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, his involvement in which triggered the so-called ‘gauge war’ that led to the standardisation of track width in the UK. He also designed the Paddington terminus: influenced by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, it remains one of the capital’s most important stations and, despite being extended and rebuilt after bombing throughout the Second World War, is still recognisable as Brunel’s design.

Vitruvian Man Leonardo Da Vinci

Image credit: Dreamstime

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci


OCCUPATION: Artist, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, sculptor, architect…

BACKGROUND: Basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic

FAMOUS FOR: Vitruvian Man, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper

Acclaimed as the genius who epitomised the Renaissance during the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci – known for half a millennium simply as Leonardo – is accepted by the creative community as the man behind some of the most influential creations in Western art: Vitruvian Man, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. While most of his work is either lost or unfinished, there remain a couple of dozen major works. On the rare occasions they are offered at auction, they go for hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2017, Salvator Mundi fetched $450.3m, the most ever paid for a painting at public auction.

During the Renaissance there was no sense of art and science being the separate fields of study that they resolutely are today. Which means that the artist who painted St Jerome in the Wilderness filled his notebooks – masterpieces in their own right – with studies of engineering subjects, especially flight. The pages are adorned with futuristic drawings of flying machines, architecture, war weaponry. Only one of his scientific works is in a private collection – the Codex Leicester – which is owned by Bill Gates. Many of Leonardo’s illustrations are accompanied by his own notes, which are produced in mirror-writing from right to left, leading to the theory that he was left-handed.

Because he had no education in Latin or mathematics, Leonardo was ignored as a scientist. But what Latin he did accrue as an adult he put to good use when he described heliocentrism: “Il sole non si move” (‘the Sun doesn’t move.’). He also stated that perpetual motion is not possible.

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