online: 17 march 2003

15 march 2003 engineering as art

13:03: Visiting the Wapping Project (an exhibition by Richard Wilson and others at the old pumping station) with my daughter Joanna, and her daughter Amelia, aged three. Joanna was once a pupil of Richard Wilson and she had proposed our visit.

I am amazed to see again several Metrovick electric motors (driving the pumps) - amongst which I lived and worked for the first ten years of my working life... And now I am equally amazed to see (suspended in the air, but indoors) an aluminium Cessna aeroplane that Richard Wilson and his colleagues have crushed and then straightened out and cut holes in... That sight is almost another scene from my life in engineering - it reminds me of riveting another metal aeroplane (the de Havilland Dove) as a student apprentice at their factory in 1950 or so...

...and then Amelia draws a picture of 'what my dream is going to be tonight' ... and she says of a second drawing: 'that is another version'...

...Now I'm looking at a 'type R motor' of the kind developed by Harry West the Chief Electrical Engineer of Metrovick (the Metorpolitan-Vickers Electrical Company) who became my patron. He gave me freedom to do whatever I thought fit towards improving the appearance, and later the ergonomics, of Metrovick products - from electric motors and locomotives to power station control rooms and mainframe computers... It was the formative experience of my life...

Now I am listening to a video tape of Richard Wilson telling of how his work of cutting, realigning (or otherwise transforming) trucks, ships, aeroplanes, and parts of buildings as a new kind of sculpture evolves from small scale work with models and small sculptures... Somehow there emerges, in this enlargement beyond the scale of the hand-made (as in the large constructions of Christo*) an unexpected art, or magic - even an industrial shamanic madness that belies the seemingly cold rationality of engineering... And sometimes Richard Wilson admits that the non-utilitarian presence of these large and distorted objects takes him by surprise as he feels his artistic way from one scale of action to another... He speaks more as an ordinary person than an artist - and that too is I think timely, and good.

As we left I noticed a large disused transformer, also manufactured by Metrovick. It stands in front of a wooden building that is wrapped, almost Christo-fashion, in a reddish tarpaulin... When I went close to the transformer I saw that its nameplate is almost identical to one I designed myself, probably in 1953 or 1954. It was the very first thing I was asked to design at what was then called the 'appearance design office'. Soon its name was changed to 'industrial design office'... And a few years later, when I realised that industrial design and ergonomics could be fruitfully combined, I was allowed to rename my part of it the 'industrial design ergonomics laboratory'... But that little nameplate of the transformer was the first (and one of the few) of my designs to be manufactured... I hope to write about those some other time.

17 march 2003:
Yes, I was both pleased and a little shocked to come across these pieces from my past - united with elements and memories of the kind of engineering sculpture that I like so much... It was only when I began to learn sculpture myself, after undergoing an education in science and engineering, that I understood why I'd set out at first to be a designer of aeroplanes - it was because I liked their shapes, as sculptures, not as a means to fly from here to there. When learnt to fly myself (in a de Havilland Tiger Moth) I realised that I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of flying. When I began making sculptures I realised that what attracts me to aeroplanes is their magical strangeness - their streamlined shapes and the surprising way in which wings and tails and flaps and ailerons etc. maintain control and balance in an invisible medium.

And now I work only with digitised words - a medium in which everything else can be described and made public. But the experience of making and perceiving physical objects is something else.

*The works of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (large constructions in the landscape at the scale of civil engineering but with the deliberate purposeless of modern art) have the magical effect of enabling us to shed utilitarian thoughts and thus to re-see buildings, railway lines, fences, cranes, or any such objects, as pure shape or presence, as impressive and mysterious to us as are prehistoric standing stones or the pyramids in Egypt, perhaps.

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© 2003 john chris jones

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