Sydney Opera House under construction, 6 April 1966  Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd. Courtesy Australian Air Photos

Ove Arup: Engineering at the heart of design

When it comes to pioneers in engineering, they don’t come much bigger than Ove Arup. That’s why the Victoria and Albert Museum is telling his story in the first exhibition of its engineering season.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is starting to take engineering seriously as a design discipline. A season of engineering exhibitions, opening on 18 June, includes the first major retrospective of Sir Ove Arup (1895-1988), founder of Arup & Partners and probably the most influential engineer of the late 20th century. When you think of the most iconic buildings of that time, chances are that Arup was involved. But buildings are only one part of his legacy. It was his multidisciplinary approach to engineering, characterised in his philosophy of ‘total design’, that has given him lasting relevance.

It also makes him the perfect focus for the V&A’s first engineering exhibition. “We are aware that in recent decades we haven’t done a lot of programming that focuses on engineering as a design discipline,” says exhibition co-curator Zofia Trafas White. The season is part of changes introduced by new V&A director Martin Roth, who has signalled the museum’s renewed interest in industrial design and the engineer.

According to Tristram Carfrae, deputy chairman of Arup Group, “the last time there has been an engineering exhibit in a major cultural institution anywhere in the world was 15 years ago at the Pompidou Centre in Paris”. He welcomes the new exhibition, which has been mounted in cooperation with the global engineering and design consultancy, founded by Arup in 1946. The exhibition includes previously unseen prototypes, models, drawings and films, as well as new immersive digital displays featuring animations, simulations and virtual reality.

A pioneer

The life, work and legacy of the Anglo-Danish Arup provides the perfect backdrop to celebrating the vital creative role of engineering over the last century. “We really wanted to show someone who was not only an important figure in that time but someone with an incredible legacy, and Arup’s legacy as a global engineering consultancy is obviously immense,” says Trafas White. The exhibition, she says, also strives “to show that engineering is an evolving process of problem-solving”.

Central to this is Arup’s pioneering multidisciplinary approach to design, which “has become the mode of practice today, but in his day was completely revolutionary”, says Trafas White. “He was a visionary,” adds David Blockley, emeritus professor of civil engineering at the University of Bristol. “A lot of engineers tend to get absorbed in detail and sometimes can lose the big picture; he clearly was a big-picture thinker.”

Matthew Wells, director at civil engineering consultancy Techniker, started his career at Arup, and agrees he was revolutionary. “He was the first engineer to take engineering beyond the accepted discourse and try and make something more of it, so its contribution would be something more than just a rational technical appraisal of each particular problem.”

Arup was born in Newcastle in 1895 to a Norwegian mother and Danish father and was educated in Denmark, first studying philosophy at Copenhagen University and then engineering, specialising in reinforced concrete. He returned to the UK and during the 1930s engaged with leading modernists including Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. He collaborated with Berthold Lubetkin on London Zoo’s famous Penguin Pool.

By the time he founded his own consultancy, he had begun to articulate his philosophy. “The idea of total design was a whole integration of all the specialist knowledge,” explains Trafas White. “He really wanted to advocate for a greater and more important role for the engineer from the early design stages, not just coming in later on to make the building stand up.”

Blockley says that “prior to him, there was a tendency for a client to go to an architect and say ‘I need a building’ and the architect would come up with a design and then only at a late stage involve the engineers,” often leading to problems.

Carfrae says his approach, and that adopted by Arup today, is more than just assembling the best multidisciplinary teams using the best experts. “It starts with a sort of questioning attitude.” Arup wanted to examine the wider context of any project and understand its rationale as well as its benefit to society. “Some clients find this quite difficult because when they ask us to do something the first thing we will do is ask them why,” he says. Arup believed in caring about a whole project passionately, rather than just the engineering parts.

The modern engineer

Arup’s ideas are encapsulated in his ‘key speech’, a sort of manifesto of guiding principles he wrote in 1970 for recruits to Arup & Partners. He emphasised the importance of engineers getting satisfaction from their work, a motivation he placed above profit alone. He felt that the company would find clients willing to pay for creative, satisfying, high-quality work.

In many respects Arup shaped the role of the modern engineer. “He was very much more interested in making engineers than making buildings and he had a very clear idea of how an engineer should conduct themself,” says Wells. He felt engineers have a responsibility to society. “He always advocated for more creative or artistic components to the education of engineers and had a kind of vision of a holistic figure - the engineer shouldn’t just be the mathematician, but a creative intuitive thinker,” says Trafas White.

In the early 1980s, Carfrae was lucky enough to spend some time with Arup. “I loved just sitting with him,” he says. “Most of the conversation was about the human condition. I remember he said ‘it would be so easy to design the perfect lavatory if only everybody was the same shape and size’. He was using it as an analogy - whatever you try and design for people, you have to think from different perspectives.”

From Durham to Sydney

The V&A exhibition focuses on a range of projects, including Ove Arup’s own favourite - the 1966 Kinsgate Footbridge across the River Wear in Durham, the last project he personally completed. “It integrated his total design approach, that married the aesthetic vision for the bridge with how it was constructed,” says Trafas White.

The bridge, designed by Arup, was constructed in reinforced concrete in two halves, each built parallel to the river, then rotated through 90 degrees to make the crossing. “The beautiful bit is right in the middle where the bridges meet,” says Carfrae. Arup created a custom bronze expansion joint formed from a T shape embedded on the town side, connected to a U shape embedded on the university side. “That represents the whole objective of the bridge, which was to connect the city and the university,” Carfrae adds. “To me, I still find that absolutely amazing because any other engineer, then or now, would just get a bearing out of a catalogue that did the job.”

One of the most iconic buildings Arup worked on was the Sydney Opera House. The story of its construction is prominently featured in the exhibition, including previously unseen original calculations for the gravity-defying roof. The curatorial team took a deep dive into the Opera House archives. “For me personally, it’s been a great pleasure to uncover stories that I didn’t know about,” says Trafas White.

The project started in 1957 and took 16 years to complete. It was fraught with difficulties when Danish architect Jorn Utzon resigned in 1966. The construction of the roof shells was one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever attempted. What made it possible was the first use of a computer in a building project to generate calculations. “Early estimates in 1962 of the computer work for just the first two years identified it was the equivalent of about 10 years of man hours, so the Sydney Opera house could not have been built without the aid of the machine,” says Trafas White.

The exhibition includes an original Pegasus computer, built by Ferranti. It was one of the earliest valve computers and the type used by Arup engineers. With a footprint of around four metres squared, transporting the machine from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry was no small feat.

The legacy of Ove Arup continues today. Carfrae says a great example is the National Aquatics Centre, or ‘Water Cube’, built by a consortium including Arup for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The building is clad with over 100,000 square metres of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) pillows, which look like soap bubbles. “On day one, we had 10 different engineering disciplines in the architect’s office, each trying to articulate what success would look like. The next four weeks we got nowhere, with design ideas that didn’t meet those ambitions and then suddenly on one day four weeks in, it just all clicked - we got one idea that met everyone’s ambitions,” Carfrae explains.

The unseen hand of engineering

Arup’s influence spread, partly through ex-Arup engineers setting up their own consultancies. But the University of Bristol’s David Blockley points out that not all engineers have been able to follow his lead: “Arup’s have been able, through their reputation, to talk to architects, where some small practices or people from practices with perhaps less vision have been browbeaten and have not stood up for their point of view.”

Carfrae feels that some of the group’s competitors only pay lip-service to Arup’s approach. “If you talk to them on the phone they might say similar things, but when it comes to actually doing it, it’s much easier to just do your bit of the project and not really care about everybody else’s.” From his experience at Arup Associates, Techniker’s Matthew Wells says the model was not without problems: “In a design process the emphasis changes, so a fully integrated team at all times is a difficult thing to achieve.”

Today, the approach can be seen in major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, Europe’s largest underground railway. The execution of such projects, says Trafas White, “are so seamless because they integrate everything - planning and designing for tunnelling under London and executing it while the city is moving above”.

Arup died in 1988 at the cusp of many changes in the industry. How comfortable he would be with the nature of engineering today is unclear. Wells thinks he would have been uncertain about the globalisation of the industry and the export of western design views. But it is likely he would have been delighted that the V&A had chosen to mount its engineering season to recognise the importance of engineers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of design.

Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is at the V&A Museum from 18 June to 6 November 2016.

Image credits

Sydney Opera House under construction, 6 April 1966 © Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd. Courtesy Australian Air Photos

Sir Ove Arup by Godfrey Argent, 25 April 1969 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Exterior view of CentrePompidou, Paris, France ©Ian Dagnall Alamy Stock Photo

Penguin Pool, London Zoo, London, 1934 © ZSL

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