Features

Engineering the world

Presenter Razia Iqbal and engineers, William Baker, Ilya Espino de Marotta and Michel Virogeux on stage in London.

The designers of record-breaking and jaw-dropping infrastructure from around the world are to be featured on The Engineers, a special programme on the BBC World Service to be broadcast later this month.

Recording for the programme took place this week at the Victoria and Albert Museum where a capacity audience turned up to hear William Baker, Michel Virogeux and Ilya Espino de Marotta, the chief engineers behind the world's highest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa; its tallest bridge, the Millau Viaduct and the biggest ongoing engineering project on the planet, the soon to be opened expansion of the Panama Canal.

A fascinating discussion followed, presented by the BBC’s Razia Iqbal, which encompassed aspects of the engineers’ landmark projects, how they approached their work and their engineering and business philosophies. William Baker, partner at SOM, recounted his experiences of working for demanding clients, including Donald Trump, who the audience were particularly interested in. 

Baker is best known for the development of the “buttressed core” structural system for the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest manmade structure. His comments on architects and other members of the design team were particularly revealing coming from someone who has also collaborated with numerous architects over many years. While keen to stress the collaborative nature of team working, Baker also stressed the key role of the engineer. 

Architects were “good at publicity” he said, answering a question about why engineers often didn’t get the credit they deserved for projects, but he conceded that engineers needed to get better at pushing themselves forward as this was key in explaining the value of what they did and in attracting the next generation to the industry.

Ilya Espino de Marotta spoke at length about her work on the Panama Canal and the importance of a project - the largest in the world - not just for engineering but for Panama as a nation. The political importance of the project, which had to be approved by the nation in a public referendum, placed even greater pressure on those involved and especially herself as chief engineer. 

As the only woman to have held the highest post in the Panama Canal’s management in the canal’s 100-year history, she also spoke inspiringly about her role as a woman in a male-dominated industry and her pride in doing things differently as a woman. De Marotta told the audience about how she always turns up on site in a pink hard hat to highlight her role as a proud woman and to show that women are more than capable working in the construction sector.

Michel Virogeux, one of the world’s leading bridge engineers, spoke inspiringly about his work, both working for the French government in the technical service of the French Highway Administration and latterly as an independent consultant on landmark projects like the Vasco de Gama Bridge in Lisbon, the Rion Antirion Bridge in Greece, the Third Bosphorus Bridge in Turkey and most famously the Millau Viaduct in France.

All three engineers were keen to stress the excitement and beauty to be found in engineering. “It (engineering) is all around us every day and solves many of the problems and challenges that society faces,” said de Marotta. Virogeux said that engineering was truly a profession where you could make a real difference and a positive mark on the landscape while Baker said that problem solving was one of the things that excited him about his job, as well as seeing the finished article and people enjoying the results of his work.

It was great to see the BBC tackling the issues of engineering and construction in such a thoughtful and entertaining way and the 300+ audience that turned up at the V&A were certainly entertained and informed by the three world class engineers on the stage. The Engineers should be well worth a listen when it is broadcast later this month.

The Engineers will be broadcast on 18 June at 7pm BST and again on 19 June at 12 noon BST on the BBC World Service.

Comments

Will this broadcast be available on other media platforms as well?