Education to create miracles

Lina Svaldenienė


California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) professor Edmond Saliklis, born and raised in the United States of America, is a child of Lithuanian war refugees. He speaks excellent Lithuanian, has dedicated his career to the academic world, and in the last ten years has also served as the symbolic ambassador of Lithuania. Dozens of his American students come to the six-week summer school in Vilnius every year. Often these young people leave the United States for the first time, and they not only fall in love with Lithuania, but also introduce it to their parents and friends.

What an engineer can learn from an architect


„While studying, I kept thinking – maybe I’ll be an architect, maybe I’ll be an engineer? But my professional journey was purely engineering: after graduating, I went straight to the university world and now I am a professor at the California Polytechnic University“, E. Saliklis remembers the beginning of his career.


California Polytechnic University is ranked as one of the best in preparing construction project management professionals in America. The architectural engineering program taught here is very technical, which is quite different from most other American educational institutions, as most architecture programs are found in art schools.


Thus, the mainstream discourse classifies architects as artists, although reality shows that the technical side of the profession is extremely important. „It’s very difficult to get an architect’s license in California, and most of those who have it have graduated from my university, even though Cal Poly graduates do not make up the majority in the state,“ the lecturer points out. However, he is convinced that both disciplines can give a lot to each other. – It is not fair to neglect the influence of  architects by simply saying – you are artists, you think artistically and you create artistically, what can we in engineering learn from you?“


The Engineering puzzles


  1. Saliklis’ peculiar mission is to find a combination between the professions of engineer and architect – and he has been implementing it for many years. The starting point of this combination is the professor’s assumption that once in the middle of the 19th century it was actually one profession: a mixture of architect, engineer, artist and builder was simply a craftsman. That mastery, which had not yet been divided into separate areas, gave the world impressive works – such as Gustav Eiffel’s tower, which is recognized all over the world.


„Was he an architect or an engineer? Of course, he was an engineer, but when we look at the Eiffel Tower, we see a work of art,“ says the professor, adding that the books written by him are intended for those students, engineers and architects who are looking for the threshold between the two professions.


California Polytechnic University combines the studies of these professions, but an even deeper tradition of the institution is the Bauhaus school, born in Germany. The slogan of the university – Learn By Doing – reveals the main idea: you will learn the subject when you do it!

„Materials were extremely important to Bauhaus characters: wood, reinforced concrete, textiles. We have that too – workshops are in our blood, and my students learn about wood and steel right away. Already in the first few weeks, we ask them to work in the workshop. In studies, we want to transfer creativity to the ability to build“, says E. Saliklis.


A handful of clay instead of carbon fiber


One of the areas of construction innovation is new materials, but the professor disagrees with the idea that it is the material and the knowledge of its properties that unites the architect and the engineer.


According to him, materiality is just a way to stimulate creativity. „I will give a good example – reinforced concrete became a fairly common structural material in the beginning of the 20th century. It stimulated the creativity of architects – new forms immediately appeared because it was a new material. On the other hand, engineers didn’t use reinforced concrete at all because they didn’t understand it. “No no no, we won’t build anything until we understand it mathematically”, they said. It stifled creativity and, in my opinion, caused a lot of damage“, says E. Saliklis.


Here the professor  mentions the Germans, who invented very deep and beautiful mathematical theories about reinforced concrete, which eventually separated engineers and architects. Impressive creations with reinforced concrete began to inspire fear between architects, because it was too complicated mathematically. An outstanding figure in this context was Felix Candela. A brilliant Spaniard who worked in Mexico built many reinforced concrete shells and never used German theories – he simply did not think he needed them.


A Cal Poly professor teaches his students to work with any material and rely not on the properties of the material, but on their own knowledge. Edmond Saliklis invites students to make him something from the simplest material, he encourages young people to build even from garbage, because it helps future architects and engineers to realize that strength comes from understanding mathematics and geometry, but not from material.


„I am very skeptical when people say they need high technology – carbon fiber or special steel. No no! You need clay, you need dirt, you need the simplest things, and then you use your polytechnic education and do something magical.”


The professor notes that brick or plywood can be fragile materials on their own, but now amazing forms are created from very simple materials, enabled by the combination of art and mathematics. „Thus, the threshold is not materiality, but a parametric mindset, when engineers understand how compression flows like water through a structure, and architects can apply their artistic sensibility to forms,“ says the professor. Following this idea, he returns to geometry. According to him, without knowing geometry, engineers and architects would not be able to find a common language.


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