Partridge Prize for Art in Engineering

Partridge Prize for Art in Engineering
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  • Structural : Structural
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  • All : All

By Eamonn Madden, Director Partridge, BE MSc (Struc) FIEAust CPEng NER (Structural) APEC Engineer IntPE(Aus), MIEI, CEng.

“The technical (person) must not be lost in their own technology; they must be able to appreciate life, and life is art, drama, music, and most importantly, people.” Fazlur Khan, Structural Engineer and Father of the modern high-rise building.

1.0 Introduction

We all need heroes. Fazlur Khan is one of mine. Their words give us that much needed jolt of inspiration.  Other heroes who inspire me are Leonardo Da Vinci, Ove Arup and Peter Rice. These exceptionally talented engineers all have a common trait – an awareness and interest in the world around them and openness to others which all influence their ability to think creatively.

Da Vinci’s work in developing the Milanese canals and lock system, so that marble could be transported to construct the Duomo is inspiring – engineering facilitating art. Ove Arup’s contribution to Sydney is ever present in this cities iconic Opera house. Peter Rice, probably Irelands greatest structural engineer, helped analyse the Sydney Opera house roofs and designed the Centre Pompidou, the worlds first ‘inside out’ building, still one of my favourite structures. Rice was more than an engineering genius — he was also a humanist. Passionate, tireless and eloquent, he was fond of poetry, philosophy, mathematics, horse racing, football, France, wild flowers, wine and Talisker whiskey … “perhaps, the James Joyce of engineering” suggested Jonathan Glancey (The Independent, 1992). In the speech he made after receiving the Royal Gold Medal, Rice said that the true role of the structural engineer was not to reduce, but to explore materials and structures as had the great Victorian engineers and medieval cathedral designers.

In my engineering undergraduate experience, I received little or no education in the arts or creative thinking. Talking to our recent engineering graduates this has not changed much. Most engineering students are attracted to an engineering course of study because of their proficiency in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Humanities subjects are not a pre-requisite for engineering university acceptance and are often overlooked as high school subjects at the expense of scientific based ones.

12 years ago, in response to this, the Partridge ‘Art in Engineering’ prize was created. We see that the purposes of this initiative are to:

  • introduce engineering students to creative thinking and to understand the necessity for creative engineering thinking
  • demonstrate the value of creative design in improving the human condition
  • increase, most importantly, their awareness of the world of art and
  • experience the creative process through an opportunity to be creative and develop a respect for the creative process and the work of creative disciplines they will encounter in their engineering careers

The course has been the subject of a cover article ‘Seeing the Light’  in the Institute of Structural Engineers (IStructE) magazine in the UK and a presentation I gave on ‘Developing a Creative Response-the Future Engineer skilled in Maths, Art and Creativity’ at the World Engineers Convention in Melbourne in 2019.

‘Seeing the Light’ IStructE, cover article

Developing a Creative Response, WEC 2019

2.0 Lecture and Studio

At the University of Sydney, Civil Engineering School, the students undertake a 12-week Civil Engineering Design course. One week of this course, for the past 12 years, has been dedicated to an ‘Art in Engineering’, module delivered initially by Harry Partridge and which I have continued since 2016. I was instrumental in introducing the course to first year multi discipline engineering students at my Alma Mater, the National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. (NUIG) in 2018 and have delivered the lecture there since.

The Partridge practice which Harry founded and I managed between 2009 and 2019 is one that prides itself on a strong emphasis on creative design, working with architects, artists and other creative disciplines on award winning structures and art installations. Our governing principles ‘Listen, engage, think and deliver’ put an emphasis on collaboration and clever thinking.

Sydney artists Catherine Kennedy & Ray Firth

Show and Tell at University of Sydney

In the early years the lecture was delivered as a personal discovery and appreciation of art and architecture by Harry Partridge, recounting his travels, post-graduation, through Asia, Eastern and Western Europe and the growing interest he developed in the famous paintings he encountered. Harry encouraged the students, through ‘Q&A’, to examine various art works in detail to better understand the creative process and the notion of ‘whole brain thinking’ through the work of Betty Edwards ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’. The students were taken through a number of engineering projects which emphasised that engineering is also part of the world of creative activity. Following the lecture, the students spent 3 hours in a studio where they were asked to paint an idea, a mood or a feeling and to prepare a short essay on their work.

The format and content of the short course has evolved over the years and in its current form  consists of:  an initial photographic creative exercise; a 1-hour lecture followed by a 3-hour art studio where an artwork is created by the student; a 100-word essay, written during the studio session, describing the creative work and its inspiration. Following marking of the submitted works there is an opportunity for all students to see their work and that of other class members and the Partridge Art In Engineering financial prize for the most inspiring creative effort is awarded as part of the Graduation awards ceremony.

In my lecture I include a study of the relationship between mathematics and art and mathematics as ‘muse’, introduce my creative engineering heroes and discuss creative engineering design solutions from our practice together with other examples from around the world in the history of Structural Engineering.   I explore the concept of Divergent and Convert thinking and the students take part in Torrance Test interactive exercises to develop creative thinking.

Prior to the lecture the students submit a photographic creative exercise on a given task. In 2020, with all students working from home the theme was Isolation and Connection. A selection of the photographs submitted by the students are included in a grid of 9 images which inform the Studio exercise. (see image 1).

2019 ‘Capture Campus my mood’

2020 ‘Isolation and Connection.’

Each student selects the 3 images which resonate with them and make a creative connection between the images they choose and create an artwork as a creative expression of this connection. To finish the exercise the student composes a short essay describing the creative connection in their work.

We provide studio workshop materials to the students to assist with their artwork. It is important and necessary that these change from year to year to include an element of surprise. To date these have included coloured paints, black and white paints and pastels with canvas or different coloured paper background. In 2020, with students working from home, they were given free range to choose the medium and materials themselves.

An important aspect of the success of the studio is that qualified artists are on hand in the studio session to assist students to compose and guide their work and presentation. In 2020, access to the artists was provided via a chatroom session following the online lecture.

3.0 The student’s response

‘Drought’ – 2011 USyd Winner

‘Bright New Horizons’, 2019 NUIG winner

We have found that the course is well attended and that the students respond in a good-natured positive manner. The students react positively to the art studio session which affords a less formal environment to most other engineering tutorial work experiences and encourages creativity. It is fundamentally a facet of the design process and we encourage them to use tools that they already have at their disposal but are unfamiliar with.

Students often form informal groups and sit together while other students prefer to sit in a quiet corner or lie on the floor. Interaction and discussion between students themselves and with the artists is encouraged and free movement is permitted.  Student response has been almost universally positive. Interestingly, even though students gather in informal groups, each response within that group is generally individual-the grouping does not tend to create common themes or similar creative responses from the individuals within the group.

Some students find the creative exercise demanding or intimidating and struggle to make a start. For many it is the first time they have been asked to create a work of art and the assistance of the artists in helping students overcome this initial anxiety and inhibition and open themselves up to their own creativity is vital to the success of the creative experience.

The majority of students ‘have a go’; approaching the task with energy and a degree of creativity.

A smaller selection of students grasps the freedom of the creative exercise and demonstrate an understanding of ‘out of the box thinking’. The creative works they produce, when presented to the remainder of the class, helps reinforce the perception to the class as a whole, that creativity is personal and is as much the domain of engineers as any others involved in design fields.

The creative works and essays are reflective of a creative exercise-that is, the results are very different but contain a number of broad themes:
Literal: responses depicting images of engineering construction or very literal compositions. Themes often include bridges; roads; buildings and construction.
Personal: images of family, relationships and cover themes such as home; living away from home, or family loss.
Dark Emotional: depictions of frustration; anger; depression; questioning; loss or confusion. Images are often dark and negative and express a concerning emotional response (bullying, depression, loneliness and one case of coercion). 5 students have been referred to University social services for support
Imaginative: flights of fancy in colour or monochrome. Given the short time students have to prepare and execute the exercise, these responses are likely to show a quick creative brain.
Creative: considered compositions which creatively link their concept to the chosen image and well scripted essays. Themes have included social and political issues (Global warming; Aboriginal rights/multicultural issues).

Mixing plate used as canvas.

‘Fractured’ 2013 USyd Winner

5.0 Conclusion

Creative thinking is a key component of engineering problem solving and in expanding the range of possible solutions to technical issues. As an engineer I know that there are multiple solutions to any problem but there are only 1 or 2 great solutions. Creative processes enhance the range of possibilities at your disposal…these are critically important.


Art studio in session.

We have found that our short course is encouraging engineering students to be creative through a basic understanding of whole brain creative thinking and emersion in a simple creative task. We remain committed to the belief that helping engineers appreciate artistic endeavours and other creative disciplines will give them a greater understanding of the valve of the creative team and contribution engineers can make to society and result in better engineering design.

Peter Rice claimed, “Gradually people come to you to buy surprise and the thing that’s nicest about it is that when people come to buy surprise, I have no idea of what I’m going to give them either.”

Ray Firth, artist in our Sydney University Studio, sums it up beautifully ‘Perhaps this is where the success of this module lies- the students always surprise themselves at what they find out…what they knew all along…what they can do in unfamiliar territory and what was lying dormant but has now been discovered.’



Partridge would like to acknowledge the contribution of the following in supporting this course:
University of Sydney: Course Co-ordinator- Robert Herbertson and John Hewitt; Artists: Catherine Kennedy and Ray Firth.
National University of Ireland, Galway: Course Co-ordinator- Dr Jamie Goggin; Artists: Anne
O’Byrne, Jennifer Cunningham, Reduan Atan, Anne Green.