Honoring the late David Billington

Image by Sigrid Adriaenssens

On March 25, 2018 David Billington died at the age of 90. He was a great colleague, mentor, and friend. I miss him tremendously. There will be an article soon published honoring him in IABSE’s Structural Engineering International Journal (written by Ignacio Paya Zaforteza and me) and conference sessions are being planned in memorium. At the time of his death, a journalist ask me what are the three most important things to mention about David. While the meaning of his life is hard to capture in few words, here was my response:

  1. He has shown that engineering can be art. Through his scholarship, he has defined the art of the engineer – “structural art”, which is an art form different from architectural art. He demonstrated that engineering is a creative discipline, and that engineers can be artists through the structures that they design (without compromising efficiency and economy).
  2. He humanized engineering. His scholarship revolved around people, meaning the engineers who showed great courage to try new structural forms, new materials, and new lengths (bridges, vaults) or heights (buildings). In his books and lectures he spoke of the efficiency, economy, and elegance of great historical structures (bridges, towers, vaults), all within the context of the people who designed them.
  3. He inspired people – all people: engineers, students, and the general public. He was an advocate for educating the general public about engineering. He did this through his books, lectures, and art exhibitions, all of which were designed for a general audience – no advanced math or engineering knowledge needed. If you were lucky enough to know him personally, he inspired you to keep learning, keep trying, and made you feel that he would be there to catch you if you were to fall.