Anything that you can imagine

MAHOGANY SUN - Ricardo J. Cueto Jr. () - November 13, 2010 - 12:00am

There is little benefit in having poor communication skills etched in stone. It only happens that when one has problems with his English, it is also likely that he is unable to interpret the meaning of certain words. One of them: impossible.

Inside one of TCGI Engineers’ conference rooms one late afternoon during the Asian financial crisis, I sat across a middle-aged man on a long table taking notes to make initial scoping for a prospective project proposal. He wore comfortable slippers, a white shirt hanging loose on a nearly obese body that perfectly matched a baggy pair of pants, and stared like he could see through me.

Mine is a small lot so I want everything compact, he started. Ground floor will be garage and the next upper four I intend to use for stocks. Sixth and seventh will be for my mama, and the uppermost three will be mine; he was definite on what he wanted. After briefing me with more details, I told him this conference between us was initially intended merely to determine the scope of design services for basis in the preparation of a financial proposal. I could sit with him after I conferred with our architects and other specialists prior to finalization and submittal of the proposal to make sure we had a meeting of the minds.

He shook hands with me, obviously satisfied, before leaving. Then he recalled this one small detail. Oh, I want a helipad at the deck, he clasped my hand. I’ll tell our architect, I assured him. We’ll make an ocular inspection, check local regulations for your specific place and meet with proper authorities to ensure there are no kinks. He smiled pretty pleased but had the looks of someone making up his mind. I am just thinking, he softly said almost in whisper, I could get a flying car instead of a helicopter.  

Engineers have ears that listen and eyes that choose never to outright discriminate between what is illusionary and what is real. This training probably goes back to college or graduate studies. “Consider a point in space, whose location can be defined by a rectangular coordinate system…” our professors used to say. On the strength of such introduction and other in-betweens, they would usually proceed to fill up the whole green board for days and months until such variables related to tensors, stress vectors, gradient of a scalar field and everything else that looked and sounded Greek would come to fore — and not one of us coming to terms with that point in space before we slept at the day’s end.

The training we got to comprehend intangibles also taught us that there is a solution to every problem and anything that seems illusionary can be real at some point. The facts of today, someone is supposed to have said, are yesterday’s fancies — and this is something to which we strongly subscribe.

About 70 years ago, Frank Lloyd Wright sketched a rough render of what he called ‘Mile-High Illinois’ — a structure which, under average conditions, could exceed 300 floors. The Japanese imagination could not be outdone as it proposed before 1990 what has remained a dream until now. It unveiled a proposition for a building called “Aeropolis 2000’ which was to soar two kilometers above ground and house 500 floors. In 2010, a cash-strapped Dubai unveiled the tallest constructed building on the planet in ‘Burj Khalifa”. It was reported to have about 160 habitable floors spread over a height of more than 800 meters to the clouds. 

Like the Mile-High Illinois and Aeropolis 2000, their real-world counterpart in Burj Khalifa sported a similar form — it flares out at the base and tapers at the top.

During the International Conference on Planning and Design of Tall Buildings in 1972 at Lehigh University, structural engineers were already discussing the future of tall buildings which, to be economical, “must flair at its bottom to a wide base”. They gave early hints that economical design could be attained if engineers could pattern the structure geometry of buildings to natural formations like mountains. Incidentally in 1995, Japanese engineers uncovered plans for a concrete-and-steel ‘counterpart’ of Mount Fuji, a man-made city called ‘X-Seed 4000’ that was to rise four kilometers above the base and, to this day, the tallest building ever envisioned.     

But the top honors still belong to the Empire State Building in New York, opened in 1931 as if to symbolize America’s triumph over the Great Depression and the first building in the world to breach the 100-storey mark at 102. It soared to 381 meters and has remained the longest reigning tallest building in the modern world – a title it held for more than 40 years. The building was designed at a time when electronic digital computers were just a dream and, for this alone, it deserves a place among the wonders of this planet.

A trip down the honor roll will show a rundown of other engineering feats but, in most of them, something special is curiously hidden beneath the prints. The Palm Islands of Dubai are, of course, such beauties to behold. But few dare to ask how stability of reclaimed land is maintained vis-à-vis soil consolidation, settlement and resistance to natural wave actions over time. Maybe laymen like us all need several semesters in geotechnical and coastal engineering, even marine geology, to even start learning where to begin looking for answers.  

The list of brilliant engineering creation hidden behind soothing works of art is long and endless. In more developed countries, engineers and architects have worked together right from the project conception to produce the timeless masterpieces that they have now. The architects and structural engineers of the John Hancock Center in Chicago collaborated to use the prominent exterior diagonal elements for both aesthetics and structural lateral load resisting elements.

The destroyed World Trade Center twin towers in New York had exterior columns designed by structural engineers spaced at only two feet on centers for vierendeel effect to create a ‘tubular’ system coupled with a central core that resisted severe lateral loads quite well. The same columns were utilized as architectural feature and allowed for a columnless interior where no structural obstruction stood between the exterior wall and the central core.

For all the wonders that engineering created, none would have been possible if no problem of immense proportions stood in the way at the outset. When you bear this in mind, nothing else seems impossible and engineers can afford to take this one word out from his list of language difficulties. Now, as I met with another group of ‘fierce’ people on a very important project more than ten years ago, this fellow from one of the most renowned architectural firms in the country leaned over to me holding a blue print from the opposite side of the table and asked, with the client looking: “So, could you have this concept designed for us?”

“Anything you can imagine that the client’s money can buy,” I snapped. The client looked pleased but the architect blushed.

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