Section: Campus Life
Bridge constructor Christian Menn |
There is scarcely anyone who travels by car in Switzerland and has never driven over a bridge designed by the ETH Zurich professor emeritus and civil engineer Christian Menn. His landmarks are characteristic features of the Simplon Pass, the Klosters bypass and many other important arterial roads. The Swiss bridge constructor was 80 this spring and is now being honoured at ETH Zurich with an exhibition of his works and a special lecture.
Interview: Peter Rüegg
You could be described as Pontifex Helveticus, the Swiss bridge-builder. Where did your passion for bridges originate?
Bridges already fascinated me as a child. I always wondered how heavy steel girders could be built high above a river. The fascination with civil engineering waned slightly during my grammar school days. I was no longer interested in mathematics. However, when I then did study civil engineering, my enthusiasm for bridge-building returned but it was more of a dream then. Very few bridges were being built.
I studied for my degree from 1946 to 1950. There were still few bridges being built at that time in the immediate post-war period, and they were in the hands of very experienced engineers.
Nevertheless you were able to become established in the profession. How did you achieve your position?
It happened almost by chance. I learned a great deal about the new prestressed concrete during my time as assistant to Professor Lardy, and then had the good fortune to be able to begin building several bridges in the canton of Grisons.
That can also be seen from your home page: many bridges based on your designs were built in Grisons between 1960 and 1970.
I was very busy during that period, I learned a great deal and was able to accumulate a large amount of experience. I gained the impression that I now understood bridge-building. However, I then discovered again and again that there was much, much more to be learnt.
What were the stumbling blocks at that time?
Engineering standards must always be fulfilled, that is mandatory, but as a rule they are easy to manage. The human problems are much more difficult. A bridge is not built by one person on their own. Many people are involved. They must all pull in the same direction otherwise it won’t work out. What preoccupies me in particular in design work nowadays is the cultural aspect of bridges. Bridges are an important sector of the culture of building. Magnificent bridges have been built in prominent locations from San Francisco to Sydney, and are often admired by the public more than the majority of architecturally important civil engineering works.
Which of your buildings is your favourite?
Always the last one, the one I am working on now.
If you had been asked that 10 years ago, would the answer have been the same?
Which is your most recent project?
The bridge over Lake Grimsel is currently occupying me the most. After that there are a couple of other bridges in America, including a large bridge over the Niagara River in Buffalo.
You mentioned the cultural aspect. What is your assessment of the landscape aesthetics aspect?
Firstly there are the surroundings of the bridge: the scale of the landscape, the topography, the geology, the existing buildings, the flow of the watercourse etc. These facts determine the supporting system. Only then do we come to the detailed design of the bridge. We engineers must shape our bridges to fit the environment. In my opinion architects have more freedom in that respect. They say: we shape the environment with our structures. I would never make such an arrogant claim for bridges.
Is that the appeal of architecture?
Architecture is a highly creative and artistic profession. It does not always emphasize function and design. That is impossible with civil engineering. However, it would certainly be beneficial if we did more in the cultural area rather than limiting ourselves to the natural sciences.
What would be the advantages?
We would have more possibilities and opportunities, mainly abroad, and beautiful structures would also gain us more public recognition. The public expects our buildings to be technically correct and to function. That does not merit any praise. A fascinating visual image is the only thing that impresses.
The main thing is that the bridge remains standing when you drive over it ....
Of course. The significance of engineering is recognised only when the structure is not technically correct, and the engineer who made the mistake gets a thrashing (laughs).
Are there any structures you would no longer build that way, or not at all?
Yes, all of them, at least in certain details! (laughs)
Because I have learned something more in the meantime. The only way to move forward is to look critically at one’s own structures.
Are there still any projects that would excite you?
Yes there certainly are, but I don’t want to talk about them (laughs).
Perhaps a bridge over the Strait of Messina?
No, not that one.
Is such a bridge technically feasible?
JYes, but it’s not something for me. Understandably it is a prestige project for Italy. The biggest bridges are not the only ones that fascinate me. Footbridges can also be attractive. The costs are not so decisive in those cases, and slightly more can be spent on the design. Costs play a decisive part for gigantic bridges, and there is a lot of bureaucracy with such bridges.
In the EU? In Switzerland?
It’s like that everywhere. Everything is becoming increasingly complicated even in Switzerland. There are regulations for everything and everyone. A colleague recently showed me a thick book for a call for bids for a building. Now the poor man has to read and study it all in detail.
Does this bureaucracy spoil the enjoyment of building?
It is all made more complicated. Authorities and associations may appoint incompetent experts for whom the only important thing is to make themselves important. That is alarming and leads to unnecessary and expensive frictional losses in a project.
How many bridges have you built?
I have no idea because I have never counted them. I don’t even keep a record of it.
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