Maillart and his colleagues at Maillart & Cie and Ingenieurbureau Maillart were responsible for the design, and often the construction, of many influential structures in reinforced concrete. There's no doubt that Maillart influenced the course of concrete engineering, and many would say he continues to do so. As recently as 1991, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Salginatobel Bridge
(1930) an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and in 2001, British journal Bridge - Design and Engineering
voted it "the most beautiful bridge of the century".
In the early part of his career, before his work was widely publicised, he contributed to the engineering community around him through lectures and articles describing his approach. Indeed, throughout his life, Maillart looked for ways to make his ideas and methods accessible to others.
The first opportunity came in September 1904, when he was 32 years old. He was invited to lecture in Basel by the Verein Schweizerischer Zement-Kalk-und Gips-Fabrikanten (Association of Swiss Cement Lime & Gypsum Manufacturers). His presentation was entitled "Neuere Anwendungen des Eisenbetons" (Newer applications of reinforced concrete).
In December 1905, Maillart joined the committee drafting a new Swiss national standard for reinforced concrete. He was experienced in this type of work, as he had participated in a Zürich commission (1902-3) that led to a provisional code. For its updating, Maillart and Edouard Elskes (1859-1947) were opposed to the views of Professors François Schüle (1860-1925) and Emil Mörsch (1872-1950), who favoured design calculations based on laboratory research. Maillart and Elskes argued for the testing of built structures. Agreement was reached in April 1909, and the resulting standard "Vorschriften über Bauten in armiertem Beton" (Rules on buildings in reinforced concrete) was comparatively straightforward, as Maillart had suggested. It remained in use for 25 years.
He met resistance on other fronts too. Between 1911-14, he guest lectured at his alma mater the Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule (ETH, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich. At the same time, his rival and erstwhile work colleague at Froté & Westermann, Max Ritter (1884-1946), was teaching a very different method of analysing concrete structures.
Maillart's confidence in the validity of his approach brought disagreements with some academics. He had absorbed and developed graphic statics theories as an undergraduate at ETH, and he used this technique to describe the performance of his structures. He was at loggerheads with those who favoured computational and rule-based methods. Among his many staunch supporters, however, were Carl Jegher (1874-1945), editor and publisher of Schweizerische Bauzeitung, and Professor Mirko Ros (1879-1962), whose floral tribute at Maillart's funeral bore the words "to the master".
After Maillart returned from Russia in 1919, he was again caught up in the affairs of the ETH. From 1920-4, he served on the alumni society board reviewing the institute's curriculum. He clashed frequently with Arthur Rohn (1878-1956), professor of structural and bridge engineering from 1908 and head of ETH 1923-48. Rohn wanted to establish ETH as an international hub for analytical research, whereas Maillart wanted the students to learn the practicalities of creating structures.
They differed widely on how to find a structure's 'shear centre' — the point at which loads or shear forces act without causing twisting or torsion of the member. By spring 1924, after a series of articles on the subject by Maillart and Rohn in Schweizerische Bauzeitung, Maillart's proof of his shear centre theory was accepted as fact. This did not endear him to Rohn or Max Ritter. Stephen Timoshenko (1878-1972) would endorse Maillart's work in his seminal 1953 book "History of Strength of Materials".
By the mid 1930s, Maillart's reputation was established and his ideas much in demand. In October 1935, he presented his work at the ETH Machinery Laboratory Building. More than 300 people, including engineer and historian Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968), attended to view 70 slides of his bridges, from the Stauffacher Bridge to his most recent continuous beam schemes.
Maillart's work was described and evaluated favourably by architecture critics in his lifetime, and even more so afterwards. Commentators include Giedion and Swiss architect Max Bill (1908-94), and English journalist Philip Morton Shand (1888-1960). In 1937, for the first time in its history, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) chose two engineers as honorary members — Maillart and Eugène Freyssinet (1879-1962).
By contrast, in September that year, the Schweizerischer Ingenieur- und Architektenverein (SIA, Swiss Society of Engineers & Architects) celebrated its centenary but neglectd to invite Maillart to participate. However, by 1940 the SIA had relented and he was appointed sole honorary member of its special department for bridge builders.
Within a decade of his death, Maillart was celebrated in America with exhibitions of his work in Seattle (Washington state) and Portland (Oregon), which run in January and February 1948. More recently, in September 1972, an exhibition entited "Bridges and Sculpture" opened at Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey, commemorating the centenary of Maillart's birth. It included sculptures by Max Bill and models of the Klosters
(1930) and Schwandbach Bridge
(1933) bridges. The same museum also mounted "Bridge Forms of Robert Maillart" in 1976.
Maillart's life was focused on his work and his family. Though not a demonstrative man, and rather prone to speaking his mind bluntly at work and at home, his personal letters reveal that he was devoted to his wife Maria (1872-1916) and their three children. He loved parlour games, especially card games, but read to further his work rather than for leisure.
He also doted on his granddaughter Marie-Claire, who was born in 1930, and surely would have been delighted to know that his family has continued to grow. His relatives have travelled the world: his nephew Eduard Jean Wicky (1890-1944) emigrated to Australia around 1930. His niece Ella Maillart (1903-97) became a renowned adventurer, travel writer and photographer. In 1924, she represented Switzerland at the Paris Olympics as the only woman in single-handed yachting.
Maillart's firstborn, Edmond (1902-62), moved to the USA in 1935. He married Martha Elizabeth Trotter (1901-76) and they lived in Pennsylvania and had a son Robert Russell Maillart (b.1943). Robert Russell married Joyce Lynn Danzeisen (b.1943) and they had two children, Lisa Marie Maillart (b.1974) and James Robert Maillart (b.1977). James married twice and has a son, Maillart’s great great grandchild, Chester James Nathaniel Maillart (b.2003 in Texas).
His daughter Marie Claire Blumer (1906-2009) also had one child, Marie-Claire. In 1951, she married John Stow Cuniberti (1928-2009) — who coincidentally had studied structural engineering at ETH. They had four children, Annabella Schalchli, Beatrice Cuniberti, Cornelia Cuniberti-Gibbons and Eduard Cuniberti. Their children are Maillart's great great grandchildren and, as the Cunibertis moved back to Switzerland in 1964, some of Maillart's descendents are probably living there still.
The least is known of Maillart's youngest son René (1909-76) — he had a son Daniel (b.1937) living in Corsica and a daughter Muriel (1943-8) who died young.
In 1950, Pierre Tremblet (1919-2007), another Swiss engineer trained at ETH, took over the Geneva office of Ingenieurbureau Maillart. Renamed T-ingénierie SA in 2007, the company is still trading and provides a direct link with Maillart and his engineering staff.
main reference RM
Late portrait of Robert Maillart
copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv