Art in Civil Engineering

10 November 2008

One of our student artworks
One of our student artworks

In Semester 2 Week 4 Harry Partridge (BE Syd '69, MEngSc UNSW '75) MD of Partridge Partners Consulting Engineers presented a Guest Lecture to CIVL4903: Civil Engineering Design students on the topic 'Art in Civil Engineering'.


In a presentation interleaving personal reminiscences, a selection from engineering designs, examples of engineering works embodying artistic expression and acknowledged 'works of art' in painting and sculpture Harry Partridge developed the themes: Engineers create and Art liberates.


He drew on his experiences as the structural engineer for award winning buildings, movie sets (Mad Max; The Matrix), ceremonial occasions (the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha), exhibitions and theatre sets.


He conveyed his conviction that Civil Engineering is not an abstract, analytical and detached activity but that in undertaking design, engineers share creative processes including emotional investment with (other) artists of all kinds.    


Following the lecture students were presented with an unexpected challenge derived from the lecture themes. Their assignment, to be completed within 3 hours in a Civil Engineering Drawing Office unusually equipped with canvases, brushes and acrylic paints for each of the 120 students, was to 'paint an idea, a mood, a feeling or an emotion, and write 50-100 words about the experience'.


Painter Catherine Kennedy transitioned the students from the passive, listening frame of mind to active, painting activity.


Along with Catherine, architect and painter Ray Firth provided valuable advice to students during their painting, as did the members of the Architecture Faculty who attended.


One of our student artworks
One of our student artworks

Students rose magnificently to the occasion, impressing with their good natured, positive enjoyment of the experience. They responded enthusiastically and creatively to the assignment for which they had received no prior warning and which was a 'first' in the School of Civil Engineering.


The range and richness of the paintings produced vindicated the confidence in the creativity of the students and the decision to take the risks inherent in the venture.


In response to the high standard of the paintings and in recognition of the students' whole-hearted efforts, Partridge Partners immediately awarded as prizes twelve annual memberships for the Art Gallery of NSW and is inaugurating an annual award to be named  "The Partridge Partners Prize for Art in Civil Engineering".


The paintings are now exhibited on posters hung in the Civil Engineering main stairwell.


In the final week of Semester, an excursion to 'Sculpture by the Sea' was arranged for the students. Two education officers of Sculpture by the Sea and two exhibiting artists lead tours for groups of students, after which students had time for individual viewing of the works. An assignment was set which required students to select a sculpture and to write 50-100 words on what that sculpture made them feel. Student enthusiast was again a significant feature of this activity. The attendance record showed no absentees.


Thanks to Rob Herbertson, Adjunct Professor for Design Studies, for preparing this article.