04 May 2021

Engineering Beauty

The fourth and most understandable error we made...was to have turned over all aspects of freeway route selection and design to the engineering profession. Of course, engineering is an absolutely necessary element in the road-building process. But engineering proficiency...is not all that is required. ... Freeways do not exist apart from the world. ...even the Division of Highways recognizes the fact that values of a sort that do not lend themselves to narrow economic analysis are important. ... These "community" values have been ignored partly, perhaps, because of policy, but to a much greater extent because the typical civil engineer is equipped neither by talent, training, or sympathy to evaluate them. (106)

William Bronson
How to Kill a Golden State (1968)

Here is one of those expansive and vexing social problems of which engineers↔"community" values and doctors↔people skills are merely two parochial examples. It often seems that anyone less than a Super(wo)man is bound to wreak havoc when afforded professional/specialist status in high-leverage vocations at propitious times in history. Further, "values" and "esthetic considerations" (106) introduce into any such discourse myriad intractible obstacles which promise to enforce a race to the bottom where the best ideas are compromised away. By steering clear of such procedural obstacles, the narrow technocratic consensus internal to a rigorous and specialized field such as engineering can be implemented rapidly; but of course rapid implementation tonedeaf to the bigger picture can be particularly disastrous.

Hence factors which "do not lend themselves to narrow economic analysis" must not be confused for factors which do not manifest in the economic sphere; but what, then, IS the role and value of such analysis if even those who perform, trumpet, and rely upon it readily concede that it is significantly incomplete?
Of all the professional disciplines we might call upon for judgments of a non-quantitative nature, the last one, in my book, would be engineering. (106)

Asking the Division of Highways to view freeways as "works of art" is roughly comparable to asking the neophytes of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park to design the Oroville Dam." (107)

Anecdotally this is a view of Engineers which even I've heard before. It probably is not misplaced. The error trap here, rather, is to minimize the extent to which this is not an Engineering or a Medical problem but a Human problem. The panoply of intellectual and personal assets that would enable a technocrat to achieve balanced success is quite exceptional. Shit, even artists don't seem to display much aesthetic sense; in fact as they've become more conscious of themselves as a distinct societal group, the society and the group alike have only become more adept at making end runs around aesthetics.

What are the possible solutions, if there are any?
Boris Pushkarev, the distinguished architect, proposed...a general approach to the over-all design control problem to which I heartily subscribe. "A highway engineer cannot be a regional planner and an architect at once, but regional planners, economists, sculptors, graphic designers, psychologists, biologists and geologists can work together with the engineer in visual coordination teams to integrate the freeway plan with the over-all development plan of the urbanized landscape, and to make the freeway an enduring work of beauty." (107)

Sure they can...this was the 1960s after all. This is, like the rest of the issues dredged up here, a broader human problem which has probably been studied (to the extent possible, of course) by a broader academic contingent. And of course I have often been skeptical of such collaboration in my own bailywick, though ultimately that is not so much a question of essential value as one of process determining results. To wit, is there any doubt that the hypothetical ideal solution is in fact for the engineers to be renaissance (wo)men? And if it has been purely hypothetical and ideal throughout the Industrial era, does Post-Industrial automation and the unplanned obsolescence of the laborer not in fact justify, perhaps eventually enforce a degree of selectivity which was unthinkable before but which threatens, in fact, to become not just possible but necessary?

This (strictly ideal) solution avoids the friction that inevitably arises in the course of the type of collaboration WB and Pushkarev recommend here. This is, to be sure, a friction which is endemic to such enterprises and is magnified exponentially with each added team member, and this, I stand convinced, regardless of how high- or low-functioning the team ultimately proves to be.

Against this proposal is, above all, the difficulty of implementing an effective mechanism of selection at each stage of academic and professional development. The very concept of renaissance (wo)man has long since been thoroughly and irrevocably coopted by the college admission process, and so, as every applicant seems to be one, so none of them seem that way. And again, the introduction of squishier criteria rooted in values, aesthetics, etc., the very point of the whole discussion here, is itself a great source of social friction; in fact, perhaps THE greatest.

[from a notebook, 2017]

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