Sunday, June 20

‘Eugène Freyssinet’: The cult book of engineering that reappeared in a storage room | Babelia


In 1978, the defunct Spanish label 2c Ediciones published a biography of the French engineer Eugène Freyssinet (1879-1962) that went beyond the margins in which a technical disclosure book is usually distributed. It aroused great interest in the world of engineering because it was the first volume that presented in a global way the life and work of the man who revolutionized the art of construction in the 20th century with the invention of prestressed concrete, but it was also appreciated outside from that area because it was also a fascinating story that reconstructs the life event of a dreaming personality who risked his career and his fortune to develop his invention. And another of its values ​​was how it was written: its author was José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez (Madrid, 1933-2000), an engineer but also a great theorist and humanist, who was a member of the San Fernando Academy of Arts and president of the Board of Trustees of the Prado Museum.

The biography sold very well and within a few years it was discontinued, while its translations into French, English and Japanese were published and sold out. The French version was reissued a decade ago but not the Spanish, so that the first edition of 1978 became a cult book for engineers and an object of desire for searchers of bibliographic jewels on second-hand circuits. The story could end here, but three months ago there was one of those script twists that only seem possible in fiction: tidying up a storage room in the house where Fernández Ordóñez lived, still inhabited by his widow, the family found some boxes containing 600 intact copies of the 1978 edition. The surprise was huge. “We have no idea how they got there or how long they could have been there. We think maybe the publisher found them forgotten in their warehouses and sent them home when it closed. But it’s just speculation, ”his son David Fernández Ordóñez, also an engineer, recounted with disbelief.

Inside pages of the biography 'Eugène Freyssinet', by José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.
Inside pages of the biography ‘Eugène Freyssinet’, by José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.CINTER

Being a cult book, the family could have obtained a good economic benefit by selling these copies at free price on the second-hand circuit, but from the first moment they were clear that they did not want to speculate with the find. “We thought we should give it the widest possible diffusion at an affordable price. That young engineers could read and enjoy it as did those of previous generations. Or anyone from any other profession, because it can also be read almost like an adventure book ”, recalls David Fernández Ordóñez.

In this way, the heirs got in touch with Cinter, a publishing house specialized in engineering, to put the copies into circulation on the regulated market. “We did not hesitate for a second. We knew there were a lot of people looking for it and at some point we even considered doing a reissue ourselves. As soon as we announced the sale on our website and social networks, we received 50 reservations and we have already sold more than 300 ”, explains the director of Cinter, Valentín J. Alejándrez, also underlining the importance of putting this book back into circulation at an affordable price : “Many of those who read it at the time assure that it changed the concept they had of engineering and our job as editors is to try to ensure that this also reaches the new generations, not to speculate about it.”

Eugène Freyssinet's plans included in the biography of José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.
Eugène Freyssinet’s plans included in the biography of José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.CINTER

The biography is the result of 15 years of work by José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez, who started the project shortly after Freyssinet’s death, so he had access to the direct testimony of many people who worked with him and obtained original plans that are reproduced in the book, as well as photographs of his works taken by himself on various trips he made to France. The narrative relates his work to the story of his life experience and the description of his personality, so it offers a technical reading level and a more literary one. “Freyssinet was not only interested in carrying out projects or calculations. He liked to participate in the entire construction process, to be on site, so he had a great knowledge of materials and became a virtuoso of reinforced concrete. But he was not satisfied with that, but decided to experiment and that was what led him to develop prestressed concrete, much more resistant than reinforced concrete, which began to allow the construction of thinner and slender structures. The bridges that are projected today would be unimaginable without their discovery ”, summarizes Alejándrez.

This was appreciated better than anyone by Fernández Ordóñez, an engineer endowed with a deep interest in aesthetics, who turned in his chair of History and Aesthetics of Civil Engineering at the School of Madrid and in works such as the viaduct over the Paseo de la Castellana de Madrid from which hangs a sculpture by Chillida, projected in collaboration with Julio Martínez Calzón and Alberto Corral. Perhaps that is why his biography of Freyssinet has become a classic: he valued his legacy beyond his technical findings.

Years later, in his entrance speech at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in 1990, Fernández Ordóñez, reaffirmed his admiration for Freyssinet as “the greatest builder of all time.” “It brings us closer to that point of contact between the dream and life, without which the dream is nothing more than an abstract utopia and life only triviality. (…) The path of reason, in whose domain the engineer works, should never collide with the love of beauty. And today less than ever, when technical means offer unlimited possibilities. In my opinion, the difficulty lies in coordinating and balancing the imagination that produces the form with the reason that determines and fixes it. (…) The love of materials is essential, the love of the beauty of matter, the knowledge of which should allow us to use them better. The careful treatment of lovingly made materials in a work of engineering constitutes a very important step in the everlasting attempt to achieve the beauty of the work ”.

The speech, by the way, was published by the Academia de San Fernando and copies of that original edition also appeared in the Fernández Ordóñez storage room. The family has put them into circulation through Cinter together with Freyssinet’s biography: as if they had waited all these years together to see the light again.

Eugene Freyssinet

José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.
Original edition from 1978. 2c Ediciones, 1978 / Cinter, 2021.
420 pages. 35 euros.

The aesthetic thinking of engineers. Functionality and beauty

José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez.
Original edition of 1990. Real Academia de las Artes de San Fernando, 1990 / Cinter, 2021.
86 pages.
15 euros.

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