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Remembering David P. Billington (1927-2018)

Monday, October 22, 2018

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David P. Billington,'50, Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Princeton University, died on March 25, 2018, at the age of 90.  Prof. Billington joined the civil engineering faculty in 1960, after working for the consulting engineering firm of Roberts and Schaefer in New York City.  He retired in 2010.  

Prof. Billington began his studies at Princeton University in 1946 where he enrolled in a program called "Basic Engineering." After graduation, he received a Fulbright scholarship that enabled him to spend two years in Belgium, where he studied civil engineering.  In his second year, he studied with Professor Gustave Magnel, a major figure in the development of prestressed concrete. The Fulbright grant also enabled Prof. Billington to meet and marry Phyllis Bergquist, a Fulbright scholar studying music, who became his principal support in life. Soon into his academic career, he wrote Thin Shell Concrete Structures, a seminal text published in 1965.  The book is full of partial differential equations solving equilibrium for various thin shell forms - with and without bending stresses - that established him as an authority on thin-shell structures.  His scholarship, work as a consultant, and leadership as Chairman of the ACI-ASCE Joint Committee on Concrete Shell Design & Construction (1973-79) helped define standards and means for designing thin shell concrete structures around the world.

In his early years at Princeton, Prof. Billington taught a structural engineering class to students of architecture, who asked him why structures could not be studied through examples of beautiful works.  He found the idea of teaching through elegant examples (rather than abstract line drawings) very appealing.  This simple event launched Prof. Billington on a new course of scholarship that would define a new field - Structural Art. He began to analyze the humanistic side of civil engineering through conferences that brought together leading designers whose works exemplified the integration of elegance into engineering structures.  Then in 1974, Prof. Billington began teaching "Structures and the Urban Environment", a course that traces the development of outstanding structures that arose with the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of new materials - industrialized iron, then structural steel, then reinforced concrete and finally prestressed concrete.  In this course, he emphasized the creativity of the engineer along with the technical content and he showed how efficiency, economy, and elegance can be integrated in the best civil engineering structures.  This integration became the central tenet of Structural Art.

The course made use of Prof. Billington's scholarship on "structural artists" and their most important works.  His seminal book, The Tower and the Bridge, published in 1983, summarizes this scholarship and forms the foundation for the course.  The book has been translated into Japanese, Spanish and German and is a classic in the literature on the philosophy of structures.  Prof. Billington also brought this approach to the wider profession as the founder and Chairman of the ASCE SEI Committee on Aesthetics in Design (1978-85).  In addition to several courses and books - designed for a general audience - Prof. Billington curated eight museum exhibitions, most of which traveled to various museums and abroad. 

Prof. Billington's contributions earned him many awards and honors.  Among them, Honorary Doctorates from Union College (1990), Grinell College (1991), Notre Dame University (1997), and Princeton University (2015).  He is also the recipient of the Princeton University President's Award for Distinguished Teaching.  He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and in 1999 he was named one of the top five educators in Civil Engineering since 1874 by the Engineering News Record.

Through his books, papers, art exhibitions and lectures Prof. Billington inspired a remarkable range of people -engineers, students, and the general public  - and contributed to create a better awareness of the importance of engineering.  With his death the world lost one of its most inspiring, passionate, and innovative civil engineering professors.

On-line memorial

submitted by: Sigrid Adriaenssens, Maria E. Moreyra Garlock, Ignacio Payá-Zaforteza and Linda Kaplan