The Revolutionary Bridges of Robert Maillart; July 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Billington; 8 Page(s)
Just as railway bridges were the great structural symbols of the 19th century, highway bridges became the engineering emblems of the 20th century. The invention of the automobile created an irresistible demand for paved roads and vehicular bridges throughout the developed world. The type of bridge needed for cars and trucks, however, is fundamentally different from that needed for locomotives. Most highway bridges carry lighter loads than railway bridges do, and their roadways can be sharply curved or steeply sloping. To meet these needs, many turn-of-the-century bridge designers began working with a new building material: reinforced concrete, which has steel bars embedded in it. And the master of this new material was Swiss structural engineer Robert Maillart, who designed some of the most original and influential bridges of the modern era.
Born in Bern in 1872, Maillart studied engineering at the Federal Polytechnical Institute in Zurich. Early in his career he developed a unique method for designing bridges, buildings and other concrete structures. He rejected the complex mathematical analysis of loads and stresses that was being enthusiastically adopted by most of his contemporaries. At the same time, he also eschewed the decorative approach taken by many bridge builders of his time. He resisted imitating architectural styles and adding design elements solely for ornamentation. Maillart's method was a form of creative intuition. He had a knack for conceiving new shapes to solve classic engineering problems. And because he worked in a highly competitive field, one of his goals was economy-he won design and construction contracts because his structures were reasonably priced, often less costly than all of his rivals' proposals. The easiest way to understand his technique is to look closely at the major works that best illustrate his independent vision.