What is soil mechanics? That is the question that launches a series of short videos featuring the renowned geotechnical engineer Prof. John Burland (Imperial College). His accomplishments over a career spanning 50+ years—accomplishments which have included helping stabilize the Leaning Tower of Pisa—led the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering to establish a geo-engineering lecture in Burland’s honor in 2016.

The video series is well worth watching, even if soil mechanics is not directly one’s area of design in engineering. The importance of understanding soils unites all of civil engineering, and deeply where it intersects geosynthetics.


“Soil mechanics is that branch of science that studies the mechanical behavior of soils as they apply to the design of civil engineering structures,” Prof Burland notes in the opening video. “Civil engineering is all about providing and maintaining the infrastructure that makes civilization possible…. Geotechnial engineering is a specialization of civil engineering.”
Inescapably, of course, all civil infrastructure must rest on ground: roads, tunnels, airports, railways, etc.
Burland associates the need to understand soils—the primary building material of a geotechnical engineer—to the materials that artisans and craftsmen use in their work, whatever field that may be in.
Geosynthetics professionals are considerably involved and concerned with soils and soil mechanics. Geosynthetic materials are used to stabilize pavement systems, reinforce walls and slopes, and prevent piping and erosion in dikes and canals. They allow railways to be constructed over softer soils, improve wind farm efficiency and constructability, and lower the cost and construction time for small bridge abutments. They enable the utilization of local soils in constructions for which those soils would otherwise not be qualified for were they not included in a geosynthetic design.
The advantages and possibilities with geosynthetics and soils extend well beyond this, but these highly engineered materials only perform their necessary functions if they are properly specified. That requires understanding the soil characteristics of a site and what needs to be accomplished with them.
Prof. Burland’s video series is more than four years old at this point, but it remains relevant and is a pleasant introduction for those who know less about geotechnical engineering while simultaneously serving as a strong reminder to experts that the subject of soil mechanics is fascinating, as are our collective achievements in geotechnical design working with soils.
Soil Mechanics Video Series with Prof. John Burland
The video series was produced with support from the Ove Arup Foundation.