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James O’Callaghan, designer and structural engineer behind the iconic Apple store staircase, considers the best way to achieve creative working relationships

4 min read

As with most things in life, the development of partnerships in architecture, art and engineering hinge on relationships. It takes a level of trust and experience of each party for the most elegant solutions to emerge. Architects need to understand their engineers, their approach, skill and appetite for ambition. Similarly engineers work best when they understand the typology, nature, style and goals of architects.

This understanding all needs to be underpinned with a mutual respect so that everyone feels like an integral part of the design process. It’s common that it’s not until several projects have been completed that this partnership really begins to work well.

Gota Dam Residence

Gota Dam Residence

Relationships between architect, artist and engineer are so important and are often under-recognised in projects. Indeed, the relationship is more fundamental to the success than the specific skills of the engineer which, while vital, are not the language of its success.

The collaboration between architect and engineer should be an intense and exciting time

Creativity is a cornerstone of a successful partnership between architect, artist and engineer. A willingness to push boundaries and think beyond the typical solutions to the challenges presented.

The best solutions come from an objective review and not from just fitting the design around the solution employed on a previous project. The collaboration between architect and engineer should be an intense and exciting time, when each of the disciplines feels the most connected in the whole process of design, when it is clear to the individuals why they do what they do, and the satisfaction of the process is enough to justify the reason for doing what they do.

Big Rock Candy Fountain with David Bachelor: a ten-metre, multi coloured light fountain on the roof of a three-storey building in North London

Big Rock Candy Fountain with David Bachelor: a ten-metre, multi coloured light fountain on the roof of a three-storey building in North London

Art and architecture projects are commissioned in many different ways. They can be instigated through a competition in which a number of practices will develop proposals to a specific brief and a jury typically chooses the most appropriate for the client. Alternatively the architect can be approached directly by the client because they are keen on the work they have delivered in the past or there is a long-term relationship that delivers what the client wants.

Art installations typically come via a commission from a body looking for art of a particular nature, often related to a specific site or space that has already been identified. Projects nearly always have parameters beyond those that are site specific, such as budgets and schedules. These have to be considered in the development of a design so that the artist or architect and their respective teams can work within them.

Successful projects and client relationships are significantly influenced by the ability to keep to the budget. Similarly it is a key part of the dialogue between architect and client that establishes the appropriate brief so that these economic boundaries can realistically be respected by the design team.

The architect or artist each assembles their team to deliver the project to the client, ideally a collection of trusted consultants through prior experience, although this is not always the case. Also, increasingly the client has a series of consultants that the architect is requested to adopt.

While this doesn’t necessarily lead to likely failure, it may not be the ideal way for a team to be assembled because it doesn’t foster the development of team efficiency from one project to the next.

The role of the architect in managing the team varies from contract to contract and country to country. The architect is typically the lead and co-ordinates the work of the disciplines within the team to ensure the drawings, specifications and other deliverables are describing the design in detail.

When the construction stage begins, it requires discipline for the design team to ensure quality standards are met by the builder as well as being able to provide any clarification on the design documents so the building is safely achievable.

Art installations follow a more concentrated path in the building phase and are often less detailed during design, and rely more on the skill of the builder to develop pragmatic construction out of concepts developed by the engineer at the sketch level. Flexibility and thinking on your feet tend to be the key skills required.