Billington ’50 speaks about engineering’s ‘synergy of disciplines’

i-cb871462d587ce5377455ff9e2535dd3-wb_alumni.jpgBy Katy Pinke ’10

Professor David P. Billington ’50, who recently took emeritus status after 50 years of teaching civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, gave a Feb. 20 Alumni Day talk that explored “engineering in politics and history, and engineering as art.”

Billington’s lecture centered on a discussion of structures. “The study of structural engineering is different — but parallel to — the study of architecture,” he explained. As is the case with architecture, “history, politics, and art become integral lenses through which we must look at engineering.”

Billington’s personal views reinforce this interdisciplinary approach. “I see structures as art forms,” he explained, “[and] in the beginning of my career, there was no particular literature for this kind of idea. The teaching of a new idea requires new scholarship, much of which was created at Princeton.” Billington has authored several books using this aesthetically and socially driven approach to structures.

Accompanying his writings were his courses. Two of Billington’s classes are among the largest lectures taught at Princeton: “Structures and The Urban Environment,” established in 1974; and “Engineering in the Modern World,” which began in 1989. Billington described the latter as “an exploration of the transformation of American society through the perspective of engineering.” Two hundred students have enrolled in each course for the last three years.

Billington taught a mini-course within his Alumni Day lecture. He discussed — in words that bespoke more of a humanities than a science perspective — the “language and meaning of engineering.” Billington explained that “the ‘science language’ of engineering works in terms of formulas and relationships; the ‘social language’ of engineering articulates contexts for construction; and the ‘symbolic language’ of engineering is concerned with changes in vision, with innovation.”

Throughout his talk, Billington stressed the importance of innovation, along with the individualistic, radical nature of the innovators themselves. Speaking with the same enthusiasm for the discoveries of the imaginative Wright brothers as for the contributions of “structural artists” such as Maillart, Ammann, Nervi, and Candela, Billington illustrated the ways in which true innovators in engineering have worked from an awareness not only of the physics and art inherent in nature, but also of the social, cultural, political, and environmental contexts surrounding their works.

“In engineering, there is a synergy of disciplines,” Billington said. “The arts, the humanities, and the sciences all combine.”