Pushing the Limits by Henry Petroski

Cover Image, Pushing the Limits by Henry Petroski

Cover, Pushing the Limits by Henry Petroski

I am a loyal fan of Henry Petroski , author and Duke professor of civil engineering.  His books are a hard sell to anyone who isn’t interested in engineering and technology, though.  My wife, when she wants to embarrass me in public, points out that I’ve actually read an entire book about the pencil.  Yet, Petroski’s book about the pencil transformed my perspective of the mundane wooden writing implement, illustrating how even in simple forms the principles of engineering are at work. To paint a broad picture of Petroski’s work, he places engineering and technology principles in a historical context, returning again and again to one overriding principle: failure is the mother of invention.  Almost Darwinian in practice, we see this idea at work in the greatest buildings and bridges, and the most ordinary clutter on our desks. From paperclips to Pei, the same engineering drive to overcome and learn from failure is clear, and, moreover, neglecting to learn from failure can have disastrous consequences.

The old cliché is that necessity is the mother of invention, and I don’t believe Petroski wouldn’t argue with that point.   Instead, he pushes the question further back, and examines the roots of necessity.  Often, the urgency implied by the word necessity comes about through failure: a bridge falls down, and it is necessary to build a sturdier bridge; a pencil point breaks or causes illegible smudges, necessitating the search for a better pencil; or a stack of papers falls to the floor, requiring a better way to hold a stack of papers together.  Petroski has examined these topics in clear prose that brings together modern engineering knowledge with a historical perspective.

In Pushing the Limits, Petroski examines a corollary to his principle of failure, namely the tendency for engineers to build structures and devices that edge toward the limits of failure.  The book, a collection of essays from American Scientist magazine, is thematically tied together by this idea.  In each essay, Petroski shows that is not enough for an engineer to build another bridge, just like the last one.  Instead, an engineer with a creative spark will push to build a bigger bridge, but with less material, or to build a novel  building, like none seen before.  In so doing, engineers make their mark, redefining the state of the art in their field with each new project.  But, in so doing engineers put their credibility at risk.  A novel approach to solving an engineering problem may hold great promise, but also may hold unforeseen risks, hidden flaws that may go undetected and lead to failure. 

Engineers  push the limits by balancing creative risks against potential failures. We have come to expect that our technical know-how and computer-aided problem solving skill can minimize risks, helping us to predict potential failures in new designs.  But the very tools we use to model these new designs are subject to the same rules as other built objects; computers can fail, as we all know.  An engineer’s worst enemy is hubris, leading to the mistaken belief that Murphy’s law won’t apply to this design.   Careful engineers examine a problem from all angles, building mountains of facts to answer one simple question:  will this design work?  But if those mountains of data rest on a shaky bedrock of false assumptions, all is for naught.

Petroski, an emeritus professor at Duke’s College of Engineering, like me lives in the Triangle.  For me, Petroski’s inclusion of an article about a local building, Raleigh’s Dorton arena, was the highlight of the book.  Built in the 1950’s, Dorton was designed by architect Matthew Nowicki, working with structural engineer Fred Severud.  Severud’s firm would later work with renowned architect Eero Saarinen to build St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.  The Arch, a grand statement of civic pride, is also a statement of form without function; aside from bringing in tourist dollars,the Arch serves no useful function.  Dorton, however, embodies an almost ideal blend of form and function.  As Petroski explains, Dorton Arena was designed expressly for the cattle auctions and other agricultural expositions one would expect at the state fairgrounds.  But Dorton’s builders aimed high, pushing the state of the art forward by proposing the idea of having no internal roof supports.   Consequently, every Dorton seat has an unobstructed view, as the loads normally carried by internal supports instead are carried by a unique, saddle-shaped roof held in tension by steel cables.  The cables are  in turn supported by twin curvilinear concrete arches.  The external walls, supporting very little load, offer 360° natural lighting through acres of windows.

Carolina Rollergirls at Dorton Arena, photo by Ray Black III

Carolina Rollergirls at Dorton Arena,photo by Ray Black III

That I learned all this about Dorton from a relatively obscure book, instead of the local newspaper or visitor guide demonstrates the problem with Triangle area architecture.  To put it bluntly, architecture is simply not valued here.  Dorton Arena is a world-class building built as a “Cow Palace”  for the State Fair, unheralded locally, surrounded by nondescript metal warehouses, and used for run-of-the-mill trade shows.  Less than a mile from Dorton is the RBC Center,  a hockey arena and concert venue resembling a birthday cake with vanilla cream frosting, built and billed as a showpiece for the Triangle.  Instead of a bold architectural statement like Dorton, though, the RBC center screams “low-bid”, functional but dismally unappealing.  It’s controversial location is far from Raleigh’s moribund downtown, further hurting chances of building a lively downtown scene.

In contrast, Dorton is an elegant building, unfortunately lost in a hodge-podge of mediocrity.  I’ve included a beautiful photo by Ray Black III,  of the Carolina Rollergirls competing in Dorton, where its architectural novelty is clearly displayed.  Here is a light filled arena, with no obstructed views of the floor.  To use this beautiful building merely as a showcase for cows and has-been concert acts  is a tragedy.

Sadly, the Triangle has rarely embraced civic architecture as a point of pride, and our building codes and civic appearance commissions lack the teeth to demand more of developers.  The result is an architectural landscape devoid of innovation, aesthetic appeal, or a sense of grandeur.  With the Southern penchant for demanding less and less from government, we will inevitably leave a landscape filled with buildings that meet, but never exceed, requirements.

In Petroski’s view, engineering achievement rests squarely on the engineer’s understanding of previous failures, and the engineer’s sincere desire to avoid future failures.   Engineering innovation, though, depends on engineers and architects coming together in a commingling of art and science that pushes the limits of their craft.   To nurture that kind of  collaborative innovation, especially for public buildings, requires a civic mindset that fosters optimism and risk taking, for architectural innovation is rarely found in the lowest-bidding proposal.  Recently, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened a new, somewhat innovative wing, promised to be an architectural showpiece.  I am hoping that, to borrow Petroski’s title,  it pushes the limits, and really changes North Carolinian’s perception of the value of good architecture.


  1. Henry Petroski’s page at Duke is available here
  2. The photo of Dorton Arena is from the Carolina Rollergirls web site, by Ray Black III.
  3. The North Carolina State University Library hosts a biographical dictionary of North Carolina Architects, including a short biography of Matthew Nowicki.



About Chris van Hasselt

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