Structures as Texts: A Reflection on Engineering and Liberal Arts Education

by Avner Goldstein

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 Italian structural engineering within 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.)

I highly valued the excursion. It certainly made it easier to visualise the connection between engineering concepts in class and the humanistic approaches I am more familiar with. More simply, I also learned a great deal about the historical contexts and engineering merits of the structures in their own respect. In addition, it facilitated community and relationship building with other students and with faculty. Without the excursion, I fear I would not be able to fully comprehend the intersection between engineering, architectural and humanistic approaches. Without it, I would not have this new understanding of ancient structures that I am now excited to use in my own field.

Which part of the excursion (a particular place we visited, an object) struck you in a particularly strong way, something you will remember? Was there anyone we met during the excursion who shared something poignant with you, or helped you see something you might have otherwise missed?

I enjoyed visiting Andrea Palladio’s bridge in Bassano del Grappa. As a classicist, I am interested in Roman bridges and influences, so it was interesting to see Palladio refrain from adopting traditional Roman designs in this bridge, something he otherwise often does for his other structures. Our guide Guido Beltramini, director of the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, noted that this is evident by evaluating the materials used: the bridge was made of timber, whereas most Roman bridges were stone (Palladio had also designed other bridges made of stone that indeed resembled Roman structures). In addition, the bridge allowed me to understand renovation and maintenance, and to contemplate questions surrounding integrity and originality of structures that have been renovated and replaced over time (i.e. the metaphysics of identity, like the Ship of Theseus).

I also enjoyed visiting the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) and its museum in Florence. The church was different from many we have seen in Italy: it was rather stripped of decoration from the inside and lacked the baroque flare that younger churches presented. I found this difference striking; this raised questions about the relationship between beauty, aesthetic, and environment. Because there was such a change in the interior’s aesthetic, the environment changed. The space felt elevated and more spiritual or otherworldly, and against its blank walls I could apply my own thoughts and feelings and be redirected to look up toward the only painted surface on the ceiling.

I enjoyed much of what our guide Guido Beltramini said, especially how to read a structure like a text, like practicing philology. This was also echoed by Damiana Paternò, an architect at the Università Iuav di Venezia, when we visited the Villa Gazzotti. I appreciated the effort to rephrase our exercises and tours in terminology and practices that are familiar to me. Before, I had never thought to view structures as texts themselves, but rather I treated them aa stages on which I could reanimate the ancient narratives I study. This was part of my reasoning for taking this course: to understand the space in which these narratives operate. This is still a goal; however, I now find myself wanting to approach it somewhat differently. Now, I no longer view structures as something removed from the human agents (a static stage for dynamic characters) but rather an extension of human beings themselves, and when we treat these structures like texts, we can better understand the human beings behind them, and of course their historical contexts.

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

As noted above, structures can tell us a great deal about the people who lived in them, designed them, or built them. But this dynamic is bilateral: anyone who interacted with the structure and space can give us more information on the structure itself. We are simply unable to read the structure like a text if we do not know its author. When we visited the Villa Gazzotti, we were tasked by Paternò to determine the phasing of the structure (when was the cellar vault completed vis-à-vis the room above and the rest of the structure). I appreciated this exercise, but we were only capable of determining an answer because of how much we had learned about Andrea Palladio and his preferences and mission in his work. For example, we knew that the windows in the cellar vault were pre-Palladian because of the asymmetry they caused in the structure. Understanding that Palladio actively combated the asymmetry and street-bending forms of mediaeval architecture, we were able to also understand why the cellar windows were indeed an earlier feature of the structure.

[author][author_info]Avner Goldstein is a junior in the Department of Classics at Princeton University, pursuing additional certificates in Humanistic Studies, Medieval Studies, and Archaeology. His interests include religion, gender, and ethnic identity in the ancient and medieval British Isles. He is currently working on his junior independent research, which focuses on religion in Roman Britain. [/author_info] [/author]