When engineering meets art

From Athen's Stavros Niarchos to Cairo's new Egyptian Museum, large construction works can unite technique and beauty.

They say it was Albert Einstein who once said that after a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form.  This statement, made in 1923, a century ago, still resonates in the moving journey that Stefania, the mechanical mole, made through the spheres of human and mechanical labor, knowledge, imagination and genius.  She traveled from Milan’s underground work site, where she dug a tunnel 3 kilometers long at a depth of tens of meters, to Milan’s triennale, a space dedicated to the worship of art and design, to finally end up a few days ago at Milan’s Leonardo da Vinci Science and Technology Museum.

The head of this mechanical mole has the shape of a circular shield, 6.7 meters in diameter, weighing 58 tons. Its color or mixed rust, underlining years of full commitment to constructing works dedicated to serving people, is reminiscent of masterpieces by the artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. The mole, or TBM as builders call it, Tunnel boring machine, now has the role of blending science and culture, representing in the museum the 100s of similar boring machines currently in use to construct infrastructural works around the world.

Stefania is one of more than 200 TBMs that allowed Webuild, one of the world leaders in underground construction, to complete complex works such as the Grand Paris Express, Copenhagen’s Cityringen, the Brenner base tunnel, Washington DC’s tunnel to clean up its rivers, and tens of other iconic projects, including Milan’s new underground.

Architecture and art in the service of humankind

Architecture and culture go hand in hand in fueling the fantasy of the designer and the builder, strengthening their ability to go beyond technological innovation, realizing works of art that serve humankind.  Here is a brief voyage touching five modern engineering and architectural works designed to host culture and entertainment.

Athen's Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center

Among Webuild’s memorable projects, starting with Rome’s music Auditorium, comprising three distinct concert halls, we come to Athen’s Stravros Niarchos Cultural Center, one of the most representative admirable examples of design excellence and construction execution to be admired as one would a painting in a museum. With its huge windows and a ceiling that resembles a flying carpet, the center is one of the first large buildings built with environmental sustainability in mind. The ceiling over its theater is sustained by thin steel columns, like a cloud suspended over a hill, while the roof of the structure is covered by solar panels generating 3 GWh a year.

The Richard Gilder Center For Science, Education, and Innovation

Inaugurated in New York last spring, the center is a tourist attraction in of itself, even before considering what it holds. Part of the American Museum of Natural History, it contains various exhibits, including one on insects, another on butterflies, and an immersive experience of nature called “Invisible Worlds”. From the ground the building appears like a giant, vertical, sculpted bloc, with stairways that internally give the sense of a cave dug into the stone, and large glass windows that invite the visitor to look out and explore nature.

Qatar's National Museum

In Doha we find a structure inspired by a desert rose, a stone with petals created by wind and sun with desert sand. The design of the new National Museum recreates natural forms, including the constant movement of the sand, giving the impression of a building emerging from the desert. It is one of many public works built in the last few years in Qatar, many of which are inspired by the traditions of a nomadic people, like the Al Bayt stadium, constructed by Webuild, based on a bedouin tent that can be taken down and reassembled elsewhere.

The Grand Egyptian Museum

Costing over a $1 billion, the new jewel of the Nile is one of the largest and more modern museums in the world and is about to open to the public. The building, just outside Cairo on the Giza plateau, next to the pyramids, hosts some of the most precious collections in the world. The construction suffered heavy delays since 2002. One of the first objects transferred into the museum was a huge statue of Ramses II, 3200 years old, which used to be in the center of roundabout in Cairo known as Ramses square. When completed, filled with the artifacts on show in the current Egyptian Museum and its even vaster collections in its depots, the new Grand Egyptian museum will contain over 100,000 ancient artifacts, 4,549 of which found in king Tutankhamon’s grave. Triangular forms dominate the building’s facade in a motif recalling the nearby pyramids.

The Sphere

Constructing the largest spherical building in the world has taken digital innovation to this architectural peak. At 110 meters tall, 157 meters wide, held up by 3,000 tons of steel, Las Vegas’ Sphere can hold 18,600 people and has a surface of 54,000 squared meters entirely covered by 1.2 million LED discs that can be used to project very high resolution images: from planets in the solar system to an eye gazing towards the horizon, to an infinite variety of combinations created by computer. Built at a cost of $2.3 billion, using special techniques including a 180 meters high crane, the Sphere is the new pride and joy of the gambling capital known for its light shows and artistic fountains.

And it was water that brought a colleague of Stefania to Las Vegas when Webuild dug a water tunnel 4 kilometers long at a depth of 200 meters in the center of Lake Mead as part of a system that ensures the city’s water supply.