Engineering the World


17 June 2016

Who designed the Sydney Opera House? The short answer would be the architect Jørn Utzon, who in 2003 won a Pritzker Prize for his efforts. His initial drawings are astonishingly close to the finished building. Yet much of the Opera House’s structural ingenuity is the work of another man and his team.

That man was Ove Nyquist Arup, founder of the titular company and possibly the most important structural engineer of the 20th century. It was Arup and his colleague Peter Rice who provided the practical design for the building’s shell-like roofs. It was Arup and Rice who decided to use a computer, a first a built project, that performed calculations five times faster than any human. And after Utzon resigned in 1966, it was the firm Arup & Arup who remained with the project until completion. Utzon conceived the Sydney Opera House, but Arup and his company brought it into life.

For much of built history, the role of the engineer was viewed as subservient to that of the architect. Engineers were often left out until the final stages of a project. That this is no longer the case is, at least in part, thanks to Arup. A new exhibition at the V&A, Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, chronicles Arup’s career alongside that of his practice.

Co-curated by Maria Nicanor and Zofia Trafas White, Engineering the World forms a central part of the museum’s six-month-long Engineering Season, which shines a spotlight on an underappreciated corrolary of architecture and design. It is the result both of looking forward – “our departments are really broadening how we look at the built environment,” explains White – and back, to the V&A’s original purpose as a museum of industry and manufacture.

The exhibition’s interior architecture certainly embodies this idea. Created by the London-based practice Dyvik Kahln Architects, it fills the museum’s Porter Gallery with an enfolding red scaffold. Larger objects hang from the roof and sit within the framework, creating a space that is part-archive, part-industrial facility. Significantly, this is the first exhibition in this room to include a mezzanine floor, increasing space and allowing the bulk of exhibits to be viewed from above. “The idea,” says White of the elevated walkway, “that up here is the gallery, and down there is a workshop.”

We begin in the gallery, with Ove Arup the man. Born in Newcastle to a Danish father and a Norwegian mother, Arup spent much of his youth at boarding school in Denmark. Upon enrolling at the University of Copenhagen in 1913, he enrolled not in engineering but in philosophy – a decision that would affirm his speculative, problem-solving approach later in life. “His education,” says White, “was all about finding one’s purpose.” Five years later, he took an engineering degree in the same city’s Technical University, specialising in reinforced concrete. He graduated in 1922, a year later moving to London, where he would remain until his death in 1988.

The abiding impression of this first chapter is that Arup was a man of whimsy, imagination and joie de vivre. A hand-drawn Christmas card is covered in his doggerel verse, while a display of drawings shows that he doodled on notebooks, envelopes and meeting minutes. Memorabilia from company parties late in his career show a figure viewed with affectionate irreverence by his employees.

Parallel to this, evidence of Arup’s connections with Europe’s architectural modernists. Le Corbusier, not a man who respected others lightly, sent him a portrait with personal note. A 1966 letter from Walter Gropius shows the Bauhaus founder correspond address in the tone of a friend. The dispatch ends with the claim that Arup has dissolved the boundaries between architect and engineer himself.

In Arup’s hand these boundaries were very flexible indeed. His ethos of Total Design – the idea that architectural projects should be considered holistically, with each specialism involved from the beginning – called for a closer working relationship between engineer and architect. His first completed project, the international style Labworth Café (1932-33) in Essex, saw him work in both roles. Later on, at the peak of his active career, he took complete control of the Kingsgate Bridge (1963-66) in Durham, where he constructed the bridge’s two halves on either banks before rotating them across the river to meet in the centre.

More often, he made the most unlikely architectural works possible, in doing so adding elements that became a substantial part of the pre-existing sculpture. For Bethold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool (1934), he and assistant Felix Samuely created the gracefully interlocking ramps that still float above the pool with gossamer lightness. During the Second World War, as one of 500 people secretly working on portable Mulberry harbours (1944) for the D-Day landings, he inventing a shock-absorbing fender that enabled boats to dock safely. A particularly interesting display shows Arup’s civic zeal during the wartime years, which included a campaign to build concrete air raid shelters.

Along with Sydney Opera House (1957-73), the Centre Pompidou (1971-77) ranks as Arup’s most famed large-scale achievement. Although Arup had retired from active practice, he was crucial to the project’s inception. “When Rogers and Piano were young architects, it was Arup who persuaded them to enter the competition,” says White. Remarkably, the architects made no drawings for the final form of the pipes and ducts, allowing Arup’s engineers to be flexible on site. Piano’s later Menil Collection (1987) in Dallas – which influential critic Reyner Banham described as “a building to keep other architects up at night”, achieves much of its light-magic effect through the Ove Arup & Partners-designed ceiling ‘leaves’. “Increasingly,” says White, “the path between the architect and the engineer became seamless.”

Also seamless was the passage between Arup and his firm. In 1970, after sending out what is now known as the ‘Key Speech’ to his employees, Arup handed over the company to a trust. The text, still required reading for prospective Arup employees, distilled his theory of Total Design into a permanent statement. According to White, “with the Key Speech, everyone realised that Arup was the sun around which the solar system of Total Design resolved. It was a manifesto not just for the firm, but for the engineering world as a whole.”

Engineering the World makes clear that, sometime between Arup & Arup’s establishment in 1938 and Ove’s retirement, the name Arup ceased to describe just one man and came to stand for his whole team. Povl Ahm, Peter Rice, Ted Happold, Mike Glover: all these and more, flourished under Arup’s wings. There is a sense that Arup’s greatest achievement was inculcating engineers with a sense of their ability to be more than mere functionaries. Since his death in 1988, Arup’s vision of a total design has progressed further than he might have imagined. The Arup Group now employs architects, designers and planners, and offers consultancy services for everything from underground railways to landscape remodelling. Instead of collaborating intensely with architects as Arup himself did, today Arup are liable to provide both architectural and engineering knowledge themselves, along with a whole range of other specialisms.

The exhibition closes with a series of the company’s present projects. Though these could to be said to embody Arup’s problem-solving impulse, they are so advanced as to be unrecognisble as works of structural engineering. “Technology has totally transformed what Total Design can be,” says White. There is the SoundLab, which allows engineers to predict with incredible precision the sonic footprint any given development with have on the space around it. Equally remarkably, there is the SolarLeaf algae façade, a bubbling tank of green liquid and microalgae that generates a sustainable energy to heat buildings.

Engineering the World makes the movement from reinforced concrete to microalgae feel like a natural progression. This is a show with a light hand, in which the objects on display are left to tell the narrative themselves. It strives to make a potentially dry topic engaging, and by and large succeeds, though there is something a little conservative in its chronological progression through key works. It would have been interesting, too, to see how far Total Design penetrated beyond Arup and his firm: the Arup Group is vast, but the fields of architecture and engineering are vaster. Nevertheless, Engineering the World leaves one convinced of the genius of both Ove Arup and the ethos. On entering the exhibition one sees Brunel’s drawing set, which might seem like an exaggerated comparison. On exiting, it seems more than fair.