Architects and Engineers

I have the pleasure of sharing an office with two engineers, David Jacobs, a civil engineer, and Sameer Said, a visiting electrical engineer from Palestine. Both men are very good teachers sought out by their students for help and advice. Professor Said is particularly tireless and extremely generous with his time. He is often swamped with students seeking tutoring, particularly when they face looming exams, like right now. As we share an office we overhear each others’ conversations, and the other day while checking email I took note of the following exchange:

Student: Well, I think the answer is (some number of volts or the like).
Professor Said: You think? No, you cannot say, ‘I think.’ You must run calculations. In engineering there is no I think, there is only, I know.

Has a more clear distinction between the mind of an engineer and that of an architect ever been delineated? In architecture, there is no I know! There is only conjecture. There is only belief.

I ought to take a step back and say that in certain realms of architecture and design, such as urban planning or ergonomics, there is a body of evidence that points towards clear solutions to human spatial problems. Activated, safe streets include retail. The angle of the wrist must be parallel to that of the forearm to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. These are facts. Yet in most aspects of design, the architect exercises her preference. It is the architect’s preference that the client pays to employ. A contractor and a civil engineer can design a safe structure, an architect can design a surprising one. Forms, spaces, and structures are often delightful because they are surprising—because of the I don’t know. It’s nice to be involved with a practice that celebrates doubt.