Readers often write in to create magazine to debate and discuss important issues within the engineering profession. Here, one reader shares the importance of looking to the past to find inspiring ideas for the future.
“Innovation” is a word that inspires futuristic visions and the shedding of old ideas in light of new ones. While a forward-looking approach is certainly a prerequisite for innovation, it runs the risk of promoting tunnel vision.
Counterintuitively, innovators of today stand to learn a great deal from those who came before them. By applying historical innovations in a modern context, it is possible to discover new and beneficial approaches to the challenges facing modern organisations.
A fantastic example may be found by studying the work of Augustus Pugin, an influential 19th century English architect. Closely associated with the Gothic revival movement, Pugin was responsible for the designs of numerous buildings and churches. Most notably, he led the interior design of the Palace of Westminster, otherwise known as the UK Houses of Parliament.
The key innovation that Pugin promoted was the concept of functionalism. Essentially, this refers to a style of design in which the form of a building follows its function.
As a predominantly Gothic architect, he admonished architects who decorated conventional structures with Gothic-inspired features. His buildings, by contrast, used Gothic features in the structural and functional design of the building itself.
Pugin wrote, “there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety”.
This approach was epitomised in his self-designed residence, The Grange.
The exterior of this building is asymmetrical and irregular, with no attempt made to hide the shape of the rooms within. Chimneys jut out from the exterior walls, preserving the functional spaces within the structure. The result is a building that has a layout perfectly suited to the purpose of being a home, with none of the impractical restrictions that would have been imposed had the house been designed from the outside in.
This approach remains equally valid when shifted into the modern age. In a modern commercial or industrial building, the internal infrastructure and layout are essential considerations if the building is to fulfil its purpose.
More broadly, this approach can be applied to any engineering project.
Designing a building from the inside out is equivalent to addressing an engineering project from the bottom up: first considering the requirements of a client and then carrying these requirements up through the design process.
Doing so ensures that all of a client’s needs are addressed before any potentially limiting decisions are made.
Unfortunately for Pugin, shortly after completing the design of the iconic clock tower of Westminster, he suffered a breakdown and descended into madness.
His legacy, however, lives on through his designs, his impact on architecture and his innovative approach. It is a testament to how truly groundbreaking he was that his ideas should continue to inspire engineers more than 160 years later.