Interconnection in Innovation: A Reflection on Engineering and Liberal Arts Education

by Tatijana Stewart

This essay was an assignment completed as a reflection on a six-day excursion that was part of a six-week study abroad course entitled “Two Millennia of Structural Architecture in Italy.” The course was sponsored in July and August 2019 by the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies. The course instructors were Maria Garlock, Branko Glisic and Sigrid Andrianenssens, all of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Princeton University. Scala Foundation co-sponsored the excursion. Margarita Mooney, Scala’s director and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, participated in the excursion and led a post-excursion discussion with the students on engineering and liberal arts education.

The aim of this seminar was to track and  understand creativity in structural engineering in Italy in classical, medieval and modern architecture. The course also examined the intersection between technological advances and construction design across those time frames.

During the excursion, students learned about Italian architects designers including: Brunelleschi, Canova, Ducati, Dainese, Nervi, Michelangelo, Palladio, and Pisano. Sites visited included: churches, villas, cemeteries, factories, stadiums, and bridges. The class also examined up close: statues, sculptures, doors, motorcycles, and motorcycle safety equipment such as suits, helmets, shoes, and jackets with an airbag.

How would you describe the value of the excursion to this course? (visits to bridges, museums, villas, factories, etc.)   

The value of education can only be realized through hands-on application of learned concepts to the real world. Without reaching beyond the written text, photographs, and other secondary source material about the real and tangible objects, people, and events from which we draw our conclusions, it is easy to compartmentalize rather than contextualize ideas. By getting into the world and experiencing for ourselves the objects of our study in all their structural and social complexity, we are enabled to do two very important things. First, we draw original/unique conclusions based on our individual background and outside knowledge. Secondly, we inject a certain dynamism into the intellectual discussions we are having. Objects and structures are nothing without context. The context of all these technologies is the human environment for which they have been constructed, which means that their significance is rooted in the broad and local/specific history that led up to the creation, the current demands of society at the time of creation, and the experiences of the creator(s)–both those experiences which are immediately relevant as well as those which are not. By connecting our own individual path of learning to the path of influence that inspired the creator and their creation,  we might begin to understand the object in a light better than what was presented by instructors or peers in discussion, or challenge previously accepted conclusions using insights gained from our unique perspective.

I also believe that kinesthetic learning is a way to more deeply root knowledge, especially for individuals who are highly receptive to this type of information presentation. Even for those who aren’t necessarily kinesthetic learners, I still think that coupling the lessons with motion and some sort of tactile experience is so beneficial. It is as though one is learning the same bit of information twice, in two different ways simultaneously. Sensory interaction with a place through sight, sound, and touch provide a second layer with which to connect information. Different neurons are firing than would be in a classroom where photos and written materials serve as the primary sources of discussion. By visiting different types of sites for different types of objects of study, we were also allowed different settings in which to make tactile connections which were more specifically relevant to the specific objects (i.e. touching, smelling, and comparing the damaged suits in Dainese Archive versus standing on the actual vaulted structure in Palladio villa in order to investigate clues about the built history).

Which part of the excursion (a particular place we visited, an object) struck you in a particularly strong way, something you will remember?

My overarching takeaway from this excursion is the idea of the connections and networks of people/experiences/perspectives/actions involved in the development of innovation. Upon reaching the top of the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore and looking out at the city, I felt as though the duomo stood as a unique architectural masterpiece, but it was made all the more powerful by its very visible, material connection to the urban fabric of the city over which it towered. Its exterior matched that of the baptistry, which in turn mirrored the campanile. These were all also strikingly similar in patterning to the façade of the smaller Alberti Santa Maria church a few blocks away, as well as another church in the opposite direction. As Isabella Impali pointed out, the roof tiles of the duomo reflected the same roofs visible across the city, making the whole scene feel as one unique entity composed of various dissimilar, but still interconnected, parts. The Duomo in that moment was a part of a progression, an architectural and human history, one in the series of many works of Florence and Italy–some which came before the Duomo and some after. It was as though the building was through its material expression a reflection of the very idea of interconnection of history, social contexts, and creative influences that we had been studying on the excursion.

Successful creators are often prolific creators, in the sense that there is always a process, much trial and error, experimentation and gained knowledge which shows in their progressive works. A masterpiece is a masterpiece as the result of being the sum of many attempts and many learning experiences. It reflects those who influenced its design and creation. In the case of the Duomo, the Baptistry served as a testing ground for design. The Duomo, in turn, became part of the historical and social context which influenced Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s Basilica.

My moment atop the Duomo was sensational. My heart was racing from the exciting climb through the very structure that we had so closely studied, and my experience was made all the more vivid by the stormy weather that greeted us at the top. It is hard to ascribe words to this sort of profoundly awesome moment, but as simply as I can, I say that the Duomo was a clear example to me of a built reflection of the network of interconnected parts and ideas which drive innovation. At the top I felt the freedom to couple that which I had learned in lecture with Professors Branko Glisic and Maria Garlock (dome structure, graphic statics) with my own first impressions (the city fabric) and prior knowledge (i.e. the Alberti church which had been a topic in an architecture course I’d taken previously).

Was there anyone we met during the excursion who shared something poignant with you, or helped you see something you might have otherwise missed?

As an architecture major, the workshop with Damiana was particularly eye-opening for me. I had always perceived architectural study to fall within one of two categories: learning about other people’s work, through photos and texts and discussion (maybe even close view through a site visit and a sketching session) OR producing one’s own work through drawings and models. The workshop introduced me to a third category: architectural investigation. The idea of reading a building like a book, of dissecting the parts and doing hands-on research in situ blew my mind. In a way, this third element draws from the other two. In order to identify and understand possible clues, one must have studied the relevant architectural history and theory, must know both the social and historical contexts of the building and the story of its designer. It is a process akin to an architectural design studio in the sense that it is very hands on and requires creativity in approaching objects. When clues don’t seem to be jumping out, it takes a shift in perception, a fresh look, which sometimes comes through the visualization of the object, perhaps abstracted and analyzed through the production of drawings. Architectural investigation is a very personal endeavor much like studio, in which breakthroughs in understanding occur in ways specific to how your eye is able to deconstruct, reconstruct, and perceive, challenge existing iterations and forms in order to unpack ideas and designs.

Architectural investigation of this sort is also unique in that there is a very scientific sort of element to it. It feels almost like field research in biology or an archeological dig. There is information to be uncovered, and methods to which we must adhere in order to preserve the academic integrity of our findings. Creativity is required; so is rationalism and a scientific methodology.

I think this visit was great, because it was a fresh way of interacting with an object that we had spent a lot of time studying (the Palladian villa) and it combined kinesthetic learning, which is a powerful tool for me. Moreover, I think the visit opened my eyes to a side of architecture that I didn’t really know had existed before, and I think there’s a high chance that this experience will influence my independent work at Princeton and beyond.

Why might we want to know the biography of people who have made beautiful art or architecture?

As briefly mentioned in my answer to question one, the origin story of a creator is just as important to the origin story of the creation as is the historical and contemporary social context at the time and place of the product’s design and production. Often, we can look to the personal histories of key individuals (in the cases of company efforts such as Ducati) or the main influencing force (e.g. Palladio as architect) to understand which prior knowledge or experiences inspired their thinking. Often, revolutionary innovations can be linked back to just a few specific irregularities or life events of the creator. I use Palladio as an example, because it is clear that his training as a stone mason gave him the perspective of material economy that wasn’t within the realm of the traditional architect’s knowledge at the time. This perspective, a precedent set by classical architecture, and a push by the elite patrons of Palladio’s time to return to these classical forms but in a fresh way to fit society’s new demands were the conditions which gave rise to a perfect recipe: the Palladian system. By understanding that Palladio’s perspective was that of understanding economical construction, and his life path had put him into the good graces of the powerful merchant aristocracy of the time, which allowed him a certain freedom and audience, we see why the Palladio system became the preferred framework of a prolific architect, rather than fizzling out without any great success. Palladio used his background to give the people what they wanted and needed at the time: an innovative system for return to beauteous forms in architecture, but under the material constraints of the region and the varying budget constraints of his clientele.

This sort of origin story, in which the success of the product aligns in key ways with the personal timeline of the creator, can be seen in some way in all of the creators we studied on this trip. The story is not only elucidating in terms of what sparked innovation, but it is also a good reminder that success is a sort of recipe that is dependent upon so many factors and contexts. Many good ideas do not ever reach the same level of success as the Ducatis or the Nervis, and it is both humbling and inspiring to know that an individual’s unique life experience can hold the catalyst to invention and innovation, but the historical-social context can determine its ultimate success.

Any other thoughts?

I want to express my gratitude for the many opportunities we were afforded on this excursion to interact with different innovators and experts and to experience firsthand such a wide range of successful design work. It really helped me to get a better understanding of the importance of context to design success as a whole, whether it be in terms of determining the most successful design process, or in evaluating new ideas. I also was able to learn much more about many things which I otherwise would not have, and to echo the overarching theme of interconnectedness in all of my responses, I think that these experiences have provided nuance to my perspective and shifted my life path in a way that will hopefully someday influence my own design proposals. It was also nice to get to do a bit of structured sightseeing and touring around Italy, and get away from the classroom in Rome.

[author][author_info]Tatijana Stewart is currently a junior at Princeton University, majoring in Architecture with a minor in environmental studies. [/author_info] [/author]