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Addressing the conundrum
When Arup director Brian Simpson was invited to present a paper on embedded retaining walls to the international geotechnical community, he used the opportunity to outline the subject’s turbulent and controversial history.

The quadrennial International Conferences on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering are milestones in the development of theoretical geotechnics. When the organisers of the most recent, the 15th ICSMGE, which took place in Istanbul in 2001, set about planning their programme of invited lectures they came up with the concept of a series of “perspective papers”. These were essentially keynote papers, in which leading international experts would provide an overview on developments and updates in key areas of geotechnics. The authors’ brief was to “celebrate” their subjects.

The organising committee invited Arup director Dr Brian Simpson to provide the paper and presentation on embedded retaining walls. However, for Simpson – who is undeniably a world authority on the subject – the invitation was somewhat double-edged.

Retaining wall design theory, he explains, has a long and controversial history – so much so that it’s become almost a geotechnical joke. If you ask 12 engineers to design a simple embedded retaining wall, you’ll end up with 12 different solutions.

As a consequence, says Simpson, “it was hardly the most obvious area of geotechnics to celebrate”. But there was an upside, the subject always draws a large audience, and it’s usually a pretty lively one too.

Simpson, who invited Professor William Powrie from Southampton University, to co-author the paper, saw the brief as a great opportunity to look back at the turbulent history of embedded retaining walls. The story involves many of the great names of geotechnics, including Karl Terzaghi – the grandfather of modern soil mechanics – and long before him, Coulomb and Rankine.

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