“My work outside the classroom increases my credibility"
Aurelio Muttoni was recently named best teacher in the civil engineering section at EPFL for 2022. In reality, he has only one foot in the lecture hall: the other is in the field, as he’s also a partner in two engineering firms. In his view, this dual role bring benefits for both his students and his business associates.
There’s a long-held belief that puts architects and engineers in two separate camps: the first think creatively, while the second are guided by rationality. But for Aurelio Muttoni, who was named best teacher in the civil engineering section at EPFL for 2022, it’s an unfortunate distinction. That’s because, in his view, engineering can be a creative pursuit. “I’d even go so far as to say that creativity is a necessity in engineering,” he says.
To back up his point, Muttoni – who heads EPFL’s Structural Concrete Laboratory – takes us back 300 years to the age of the master builders: “The technology was more rudimentary than what we have today, but the profession was much more open: engineers were encouraged to lift their eyes from their equations and formulas and develop a broader vision.” Next, he explains, came the period between the mid-19th century and the 1920s and 1930s, when “materials were so expensive that there was a race to develop ever more frugal construction methods, even as buildings were being thrown up at a frenetic pace.”
According to Muttoni, this creative fervor petered out between the 1960s and 1980s when materials were in abundant supply and builders adopted a deliberately pragmatic approach. “I hate the word ‘pragmatic’,” he says. “It’s simplistic.” Amid successive financial crises and growing environmental concerns, today’s builders are once again “looking to use as few materials as possible.” One happy outcome of this situation is that creative thinking has returned to the fore: “I honestly believe that, with a bit of effort from the construction industry, we could quite easily halve the amount of concrete we use in Switzerland without having to replace it with alternative materials.”
The importance of arithmetic
“Both creativity and efficiency stem from collaboration between professions,” says Muttoni, who adds that having engineers, architects and environmental science experts under one roof at EPFL is “a huge advantage.” However, he doesn’t support the idea that students should be trained for a hybrid role spanning both architecture and civil engineering: “Specialization matters.”
What core skills does he think future civil engineers should possess? “At a time when construction methods and technologies are growing in sophistication, arithmetic is becoming an increasingly important skill,” notes Muttoni. “Some people might not like that, but that’s just how it is.” While especially complex calculations can now be left to computers, “that doesn’t negate the need for engineers to understand what’s happening, so they can refine their models and pick up on errors more quickly.” Muttoni also advocates for a greater focus on purpose, arguing that students should understand “not just how to perform a calculation but also why they’re doing it.”
An intuitive approach
“My teaching style is very much ‘black and white’,” says Muttoni. “The theory is highly technical and demanding.” As for the exercises, he describes them as “resolutely hands-on.” This dual approach to teaching, and the fact that he makes extensive use of inductive and intuitive reasoning, “can leave students feeling a little lost at times.” But this approach has its roots in Muttoni’s personality and background. “When I left high school, I couldn’t decide whether to study physics or architecture.” Hailing from a long line of builders, he settled on civil engineering “as a good mix of the two.”
After Muttoni completed his PhD at ETH Zurich, his thesis supervisor suggested he take up a research position in Japan. But he wasn’t interested: “I wanted to build.” Instead, he headed back to his native Ticino Canton, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, where he joined an engineering firm. A few years later, he received an invitation from Mario Botta to teach structural concepts at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, a brand-new school founded by the architect. “The experience ignited my passion for teaching.”
During his time at the school, Muttoni also had a light-bulb moment: while trying to teach highly technical concepts to “a room full of budding architects staring at me wide-eyed,” he realized that dumbing down his material would be a fruitless endeavor. “I went back to the drawing board and even wrote a visual-heavy book based on intuitive reasoning.” By dispensing almost entirely with calculations, this new approach “helps students understand how structures work – an essential precondition for actually designing them.”
Wearing two hats
After honing his method with architecture students for a number of years, Muttoni realized that a similar approach could also prove beneficial for fledgling engineers, “not least because I remember being so disappointed with the teaching I received during my own time as a student.” In 2000, he joined EPFL as an academic staff member, in the civil engineering section. Several years later came another revelation: “I recognized that being away from the action was causing me to become too ‘academic’.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he asked for a reduction in his teaching hours at EPFL, rejoined his old engineering firm in Ticino Canton and set up another practice near Lausanne. “I found that my work outside the classroom increased my credibility with students.” Muttoni still wears both hats today. “To my mind, the benefits go both ways: my practical work has a positive effect on my teaching at EPFL, and vice versa.”