FROM THE ARCHIVE

Autumn 1950: Lean and taut as a greyhound

Robert Maillart saw beauty and economy as closely entwined, and perhaps in our energy-constrained times this is his most important legacy

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Robert Maillart, the Swiss engineer who revolutionised the use of reinforced concrete, revealing it to be a material of not just strength but, as Concrete Quarterly put it, “spare beauty”. Between the two world wars, Maillart designed over 40 bridges of slender lines and elemental simplicity, his hallmark a three-hinged box arch that united arch, roadway and spandrels as one structural unit. His 300ft-span bridge over the Salgina gorge, CQ wrote, sprang “lean and taut as a greyhound across the ravine”.

Reflecting on Maillart’s legacy in 1950, 10 years after his death, CQ was keen to stress that such “lovely leaping lines” were not only great engineering but great art. Maillart was “a modern designer in the truest sense – a man who could use an unfamiliar material in a way wholly appropriate to it and to no other and in so doing evolve a new structural style”.

That said, it was neither engineering nor art that impressed his clients, so much as what he described as the “economic advantages” of his material-efficient designs. Indeed, CQ noted, Maillart’s bridges horrified Swiss officials, who tended to commission them in remote Alpine gorges where few people would see them. “In some far away valley where a cheap bridge would do, a Maillart design might as well be used and money saved.” Of course, this just elevated the drama, the mountains providing an awe-inspiring context for the delicate, arching structures.

Maillart saw beauty and economy as closely entwined, and perhaps in our energy-constrained times this is his most important legacy. “Let the engineer free himself from the forms dictated by tradition,” he wrote, “to achieve in complete freedom and with his eyes fixed always on the whole, the most perfect and most economic use of his material. Perhaps in this way we may attain, as with aeroplanes and motorcars, a new style, attuned to the new material – in short, we may attain beauty.”

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