Art and Engineering

Art and Engineering are two completely separate disciplines in today’s world. Such is the difference that a student who qualifies for an Art school would struggle to get into an Engineering college. The question is do they need to be separate?

Historically, art and engineering had a lot more common than the bifurcation noticed in the modern era. The two worlds didnt just occasionally collide but were almost intertwined with one another. Today, the situation is different. A popular quote “A designer’s dream is an Engineer’s nightmare” sums up the society of compartmentalized disciplines we live in today.

The polymaths of yester years would disagree on these boundaries set between disciplines. And sadly the extinct species that is the polymath in modern times is a testament to the lost wisdom that could be otherwise garnered by intra-disciplinary oversight. We may have progressed technologically but we stand divided intellectually based on lines of our own construct.

This article aims to highlight the importance of Synergy between art and engineering that has borne marvels that are timeless. It is apt to therefore begin with the contributions of the most recognizable figure in history that has abridged these two spheres of knowledge, Leonardo da Vinci.

Although Da Vinci’s is famous for Mona Lisa but his little known painting of “Vortices” shows his inquisitiveness about a spectacle of nature that has fascinated people of science over centuries. Vorticity and turbulence even today is the most mathematically complex phenomenon that is studied by Engineers and mathematicians.

Da Vinci vortex shedding

Da Vinci ‘s study of vortices

His design of ornithopter to realize man’s age old dream of flying proves that Leonardo was as much an Engineer as he was an artist.

Theo Jenson, a Dutch engineer, is popular for his creation of Kinetic sculptures. He has designed mechanical “beasts” that not only roam the beaches of IJmuiden with natural (animal-like) movements but also respond to the elements (wind, sand and water). He famously said “The walls between art and engineering only exist in our mind”. His quote was showcased by BMW in one of their adverts

In the video (above), few of Jensen’s kinetic sculptures that amalgamate art and engineering can be seen. For an Engineer it is every bit as marvellous as Rembrandt’s work for a student of fine arts.

The separation of art and engineering, has given rise to one of the most rigourously studied questions in industrial design “Form or Function?” Unfortunately, settling this preference between form or function is debated in Engineering and arts schools separately, but never together. This false dichotomy rather than solving the problem compounds it. Students are indoctrinated at a very early stage that they have to choose between form or function rather than complementing one with the other.

There are many examples of products and machines that have synergized both aesthetics and functionality. Aeronautical engineers have realized that the more visually  appealing an aircraft is, the better it flies. F-16 for instance is extremely popular not only among the privileged few who have flown it but also among the millions who have laid eyes on it. Likewise the single seater fighter aircraft, the “Supermarine Spitfire” holds an iconic status. The beauty of its unique elliptical wings coupled with its war legacy invokes an almost romantic dynamic in the British public.

Spitfire aircraft

Supermarine Spitfire: A sight to behold

The super car manufacturers Ferrari are another example where both the finesse of form and superior functionality has combined to create one classic car after another.

On the other hand, when we divorce engineering from art or vice versa, the result is either impracticality or ghastliness.

By way of example, in the automotive world, on one end of the form–function spectrum we have the Batmobile while on the other end we have the Formula One car. One is pleasant on the eye but almost impractical and the other is a scorcher on the race track but hardly a style symbol.

Old Batmobile

The Batmobile from 1960s. Not the ideal getaway car. Picture courtesy: Jennifer Graylock


Moving on to Civil Engineering, Gustav Eiffel an Engineer, designed and erected a tower that become not only a global cultural icon representing France but one of the most recognizable structures in the world.

Eiffel tower in Paris

Eiffel Tower: Globally recognized
Pic courtesy: Mark Thurman

It was initially criticized by many leading French artists and intellectuals. The tower that was at the time built as the tallest wrought iron structure in the world was a feat of engineering but today is mostly appreciated as a work of art.

Similarly, Engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker designed an iconic structure that was the longest cantilever at the time of its inauguration (1890). The Forth Rail Bridge has become a symbol of not only Scotland but also of Civil Engineering itself.

Forth Bridge Scotland

Forth Rail Bridge: Engineering at its best
Picture courtesy: Kim Traynor

There was a time, when nature inspired us and fostered our creativity. In today’s world we are encapsulated by artificial built environments and surrounded by machines. Our conscious self, lives more in the virtual world than in the real. We have lost touch with nature and we need to reconnect.

Students studying engineering today need to take a leaf out of an artist’s book (if there is such a thing) and those in arts should reflect on the synchronous beauty of the moving gears and pinions. Only then we will revive the same spirit that helped us create elegant Swiss watches of yester years. Only if we rise above to see what is on the other side, we can progress further and grow harmoniously.


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