The Significance of Engineering History
Here at Preservation Design Works, Greg Donofrio has been leading a somewhat philosophical discussion about several aspects of engineering history, especially as it relates to the field of preservation. A major topic in this discussion concerns the significance of engineering history in historic designation, heritage and preservation.
In my (admittedly limited) experience in the field of preservation, architectural criteria seem to dominate the establishment of physical (as opposed to cultural) historical significance for most buildings. This is not without merit, the facade and interior finishes are usually the most visible aspects of a building, and as such, it is relatively straightforward to describe, research, and create a strong argument supporting their significance. Perhaps because of the attention paid to the architectural aspects of historic buildings, other potentially important physical historical aspects, such as the structure of the building, are often overlooked or mentioned only in passing. In the buildings that do attribute significance to engineering history, a superlative approach is usually used to establish it, i.e. “first,” “largest,” “heaviest,” etc. Greg noted that this used to be true of architectural historians and other historians in general, but is now considered to be an outmoded approach to history. He pointed to the parallels that this discussion draws between vernacular architecture and polite architecture as applied to architectural history. Greg has directed me towards articles by Richard Longstreth, Paul Groth, and Randall Mason, which are related to this issue. I agree with this sentiment, because applying only a superlative approach will overlook or fail to acknowledge trends, practices and materials that were historically commonplace but could be considered significant or at least notable today. How can a non-superlative approach be taken to establishing significance in the context of engineering history?
Structural engineering is a relatively new field in a historical context (the field as we know it today was developed around 1850). Since then, the theories held and day-to-day practices used have continually evolved to follow the progression of knowledge in the field. Using the timeline of developments and patents made over the years, it is relatively simple to establish the significance of the “first” example of a new advancement in the field. It is also somewhat straightforward to determine other superlative attributes such as the “largest” example of a type of building (although this type of designation is problematic – unless the scope is limited, often further research will uncover an example that supersedes the building being researched). But what about broad, less-defined advancements such as the proliferation of “fireproof” materials used in factories, warehouses and offices around the turn of the twentieth century? “Fireproof” building materials were widely adopted into early building codes and had a profound effect on increasing the safety of multi-story building. I think that making the case for the significance of a building based on a broad advancement or trend in engineering like “fireproof” construction is more difficult, but since it becomes necessary to provide the related historical and societal context it can create a wider lens to view the history of a building (or in a broader sense, the cultures within and surrounding it). Highlighting not only monumental engineering achievements, but also the culminations of small engineering advancements which have dramatically increased public safety and impacted society can shed important light onto the field of engineering history.