• Right Brain, Left Brain: How Engineers Help Build Stronger Architecture

    Knowledge and numbers don't make an insurance policy for beauty, and they shouldn't be used that way. But the best works are made when the two camps are put in balance. Jakob Strømann-Andersen is a civil engineer, Ph.D., and the only partner at Henning Larsen who is not a trained architect. He explains how that balance works.

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  • Since his start at Henning Larsen, he has been instrumental in bringing an ambitious and broad-ranging scientific perspective into the architectural profession. In a recent conversation, Jakob told us more about how architects and engineers can work and learn together.

    It’s quite unusual for someone with an engineering background to become a partner at an architecture firm – For Henning Larsen, you’re our first non-architect partner in the firm’s history. How did this come to be?

    Henning Larsen, our founder, was always curious about other professional fields. I did my master thesis as a civil engineer together with the company. In my mid 20’s, he called me back for an interview regarding a position as an industrial Ph.D.

    During the interview, we talked about the more technical aspects of daylight. To many architects, lighting is a qualitative experience, but it is certainly also a quantitative, measurable thing. In that sense, I was able to bring a technical, academic perspective on the phenomenon of light in architecture. We discussed things such as lighting’s effect on the use of resources, like how it can be a source of heating and energy. We definitely found common ground in these different perspectives on light, and Henning Larsen wanted to see if architecture could be more informed in this way. Together with three other engineers, I was hired.

    You touched upon this – that lighting is seemingly a humanistic phenomenon. A qualitative experience that stimulates your senses. And then you came along with mathematics?

    Lighting is a natural scientific concept. Lighting has different color schemes, from ultraviolet to infrared – it can be cold, diffuse, warm, and there is energy in all of it. When lighting hits a surface like a façade, a reaction happens. We started that conversation – how we can look at the qualities of lighting from a more technical point of view – 15 years ago, and we never stopped.

    Henning Larsen now employs 14 full-time engineers. What has architecture taught you?

    We have learned how to be design-oriented. At DTU, the Technical University of Denmark, we are taught to solve an assignment, to find the correct answer. It is natural science, so the majority of times, there is a correct answer. You know, 1+1 equals two, that’s undebatable. But to architects, things are never in simple terms. Things can always be improved, every choice can be discussed. That difference is interesting to me. We should never answer with a simple yes or no because then no one learns. We must answer with design that pushes us in a direction that is better than the one we took yesterday.

    Henning Larsen is known for designing for the end-users, the people living in our architecture and urban design. There is no universal solution, no one-size-fits-all. And that means we can’t look for some truth in a book.

    Do you see a fundamental difference in how architects and engineers work?

    If I can generalize a bit, engineers are someone who is given a task and solves it. They provide answers. Architects are the ones that give that task, but also look for new tasks – they ask the questions. It is in the nature of engineers, as scientists, to strive for perfection and to perform the same task repeatedly until it is as refined as it can be. The architect can never do the same solution twice because all design is contextual.

    What was your role in bringing more engineers into Henning Larsen’s practice?

    I have cared a lot for nurturing the benefits of expert knowledge. At Henning Larsen, I feel we’ve grown a culture where we acknowledge expertise from many specializations as something super creative ideas can come from. We have also worked with the engineers to become more intuitive and agile.

    How have you done this?

    It was important for me to encourage our engineers to look at themselves as designers: To ask questions, to be curious about the architecture. That is also a criterion when we hire; all our engineers take an interest in architecture. We also appreciate a lack of faith in authority. We don’t design for standards, because we have seen that in many cases, the beauty is in the deviations. For instance, when we work with acoustics, the task is not to create the quietest room possible. The task is to create a room with the most stimulating sound environment and personal comfort. This is not necessarily done through pursuing regulations and hard metrics because it is a qualitative experience. And maybe, in that sense, we engineers have been colored by architecture. But we still balance things. We’ve had an industrial Ph.D. with a background in anthropology observing how people interact with space, and another Ph.D. putting up sensor cameras to measure the same thing in a much different way. I think this combination of approaches is the real magic.

    What do you see for the future of the engineering team?

    A huge part is that we will take even more responsibility for the studio’s projects. Architecture used to be something where we would deliver the building, cut the ribbon and be gone. Now, we’re drawing much more on research and specialist knowledge to make sure our work creates an impact for people, cities, and communities. Engineers play a huge role in this.

    Do you feel you’re moving away from your nature, and more into architecture?

    I think engineering and architecture are moving closer towards each other, actually. To deliver the best projects, we both need architects, humanists, anthropologists, and we also need to have a deep understanding of the mechanics. Therefore, I guess you can say that we learn just as much from architects as they learn from us. And that is a great development – that we’re all curious.

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