Cable-Stayed  Three

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Not a Cable-Stayed Bridge

These pictures show the outside of the Renault Distribution Centre in Swindon, Wiltshire, designed by Norman Foster Associates, and built from 1980 to 1982.

It is based on a large number of units which, apart from the ones at the edge, are identical.  Using narrow columns, causing minimal obstruction to the interior, the units comprise I-beams suspended from steel ties, forming a system rather like a two-dimensional array of cable-stayed bridges.  A closer look at one beam reveals that the cable continues under the beam, suggesting a suspension bridge as well as a cable-stayed bridge, and that the beams are not horizontal, hinting at arch action.  With imagination, one can be reminded of I K Brunel's Royal Albert bridge at Saltash.

The units around the edge have to be different, one reason being that aerodynamic forces are different there than over the remainder of the roof.  The vertical ties around the perimeter bring a new meaning to the term "surface tension", the original meaning of which also arises from differences between edge and interior.

Apart from the edges, there is only one type of structural unit throughout, and this is no accident.  Sir Norman Foster wanted to avoid the common style of commercial building in which the facade is impressive, and the front offices are pleasant, but the back, where the technical people work, is in a completely different style, often, it must be said, not as pleasant as that at the front.  

There is, of course, no basis for the belief that technicians don't require a pleasant environment, though the belief is concordant with the common English attitude to "technical" people in general.  "Technical" here is used in a very restrictive way, to include the work of engineers, technicians, and some scientists, but not the work of, for example, stained glass window makers, ceramicists, or novelists, whose work is highly technical, as well as being artistic.  And why aren't bridges, within a given type, all very similar?  One reason is that engineering and science have an artistic component, not in the sense of adding some fancy bits here and there, or trying to be different, but in the sense of the creativity that comes out of problem solving, just like the novel idea that might be forced on a poet who has been struggling to fit rhyme or rhythm, often an idea that wouldn't otherwise have come to mind.

This website includes a list of bridge engineers.  If you ask an English person to name an engineer, the most likely answer will be "Brunel".  If you look at the list, which is far from exhaustive, you will see that there are many other great British engineers, such as the "other" Brunel, the two Hazledines, Locke, Rastrick, the two Stephensons, and Telford.   If you ask for the name of an airliner, you will probably hear "Concorde", though in fact the Airbus family has been far more successful than the Concorde.  The number of young people in England who wish to study science or engineering continues to fall.  Why?  "Engineering" includes a multitude of interesting and rewarding activities, and an understanding of it can enrich our view of almost every object, whether natural or artificial.



Renault Distribution Centre

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