Structural integrity built upon joint effort

Ove Arup
February 23, 2007

Neil Jackson surveys the life of the man who shifted engineering's foundations

If Britain had not banned the importation of live cattle in 1895, Jens Arup, a Danish consular veterinarian, might have remained in Britain and his first son, Ove, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne that April, might have been educated in the country of his birth. Had that happened, it is unlikely that the educational system would ever have produced such a consulting engineer. As it was, Ove Arup was schooled in Germany before reading philosophy and mathematics and, only after that, engineering, in Copenhagen. But in 1923 he returned to Britain, where he lived until his death in 1988.

This first comprehensive biography of the engineer of the Sydney Opera House, Coventry Cathedral and the Pompidou Centre, as well as many more equally well-known buildings, shows how this continental intellectual changed the practice of engineering in this country and introduced a way of collaborative thinking between the cognate disciplines that is essential to the making of good modern buildings. Arup took a pragmatic view of engineering. Speaking to the Institution of Structural Engineers in 1968, he said: "Engineering is not a science. Science studies particular events to find general laws. Engineering design makes use of these laws to solve particular practical problems." To him, it was a craft.

As an engineer, Arup had two careers, one before the Second World War and one after. In the first, he worked in London for two Danish engineering firms specialising in concrete before setting up in partnership with his cousin, in 1938, as Arup and Arup, Civil Engineers and Contractors. The war brought him work on air-raid shelters, the Mulberry Harbour and prefabs, as well as a comfortable income, but also by its end, the desire to terminate the partnership. This he did in April 1946 and immediately, at the age of 51, set up the eponymous firm that was to change the practice of engineering. Now, 61 years later, Arup Group Ltd employs almost 8,000 staff across many disciplines in more than 50 countries.

The first job was the Donnybrook bus station in Dublin, with the architect Michael Scott, and it was in Dublin, 11 years later, that he read that a Danish architect, J?rn Utzon, had won the competition for a new Opera House in Sydney. This was to become Job 1,112 and was to change the fortunes of the firm so much so that Peter Jones devotes two of his 14 chapters to it.

The Opera House has been covered well, and recently, yet this book is not a history of architecture or engineering or of Arup and its evolution, but rather a biography, and its analysis of how Arup dealt with this problematical building, and its problematical architect, provides us with a good understanding of the man.

As Job 1,112 dragged on and costs escalated from the estimated A$7 million (£2.8 million) to something in excess of A$102 million, it became increasingly apparent that the collaborative instincts - so central to Arup's beliefs - were anathema to Utzon. This was epitomised by the bricking up, by Utzon, of the doorway between the architects' and the engineers' offices in Sydney, an event that probably precipitated Arup's 1965 memorandum to Utzon: "You have killed the joy of collaboration..." But Utzon painted himself as the sensitive artist who could not bear criticism and blamed Arup for the breakdown in working relations. "How can a consulting structural engineer," he wrote to Arup in 1966, "dare to encroach on the architect's work in such a fantastic damaging way? This is unheard of and completely unprofessional." Yet, when Arup accepted the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture that year, he countered that the architect "must shed some of his habits to make him team-worthy".

If Utzon's search for architectural perfection ultimately failed to produce a complete building - he did, after all, resign - the Italian engineer Pier-Luigi Nervi's belief that a building's quality depended on the visual expression of its structure went, for Arup, almost too far the other way.

Again, it was the collaborative nature of the process, the art of building, that was important. Jones, an emeritus professor of philosophy from Edinburgh University, here likens Arup's philosophy to Hume rather than to Kant. For, as Arup himself observed: "Kant failed in his heroic attempt to establish a universal science of ethics." And there was nothing universal about the collaborative practice Arup established: "We must not strive to produce or take 'yes-men'," he said. "Let us remain a collection of oddities if you like... My country right or wrong is not the right slogan."

Neil Jackson was previously the Hoffman Wood professor of architectural engineering in the School of Civil Engineering, Leeds University. He is now professor of architecture at Liverpool University.

Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century

Author - Peter Jones
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 364
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 11296 3

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