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Bas relief on blueprint, The Menil Collection, Houston (Texas), 1982-1987, Project Piano & Fitzgerald, architects
Credit: © Francesco Pino/Fondazione Renzo Piano, 2009, courtesy Fondazione Renzo Piano

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Engineering Is Not a Science

How Ove Arup changed the design of the modern world

A slender chute suspended 55 feet above the River Wear, the Kingsgate Bridge offers a pleasant pathway between buildings on the campus of Durham University in northeastern England. Held aloft by thin strands of concrete, the modest crossing barely lasts long enough to entertain a deep thought.


In 1959, when the university began tendering bids for the small bridge connecting the institution’s centuries-old campus with new buildings across the river, the small budget, a mere £35,000 ($51,314), broadcast the assumption that this would be a simple structure. But its evident simplicity belies its genius, an advanced prefab system that connects the two banks. Workmen fabricated two halves of the span, forming triangular bands of concrete on ball joints and standing them parallel to the riverbanks. When they were finished in 1963, the two pieces were swiveled into place, meeting in the middle.

Some of the best engineers of the time described it as a remarkable achievement. Peter Rice, who helped figure out the confounding riddle of assembling the roof of the Sydney Opera House, said the bridge represented "a perfectionist seeking perfection." Felix Candela, a master of curved concrete shells, said he felt a pang of jealousy when he saw the bridge, because "nothing makes me more jealous than seeing a true work of art. "

View of Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, 1963.
Reproduced by permission of Durham University Library

The engineer responsible for the structure, Ove Arup, may not be a household name, but his work, and his philosophies, have radically changed the way buildings are made and architecture is practiced. The tiny bridge, one of a handful of projects the engineer designed, represents Arup’s philosophy of total design, and his belief that a painstaking focus on detail can elevate any construction project into a work of art.

It’s a philosophy that helped his eponymous engineering and consulting firm become one of the most prominent in the world, pioneering a system that united engineers, architects, and technologists in collaborations on some of the world’s most striking structures, such as the Centre Pompidou, the forthcoming Apple office in Cupertino, and the Sydney Opera House. (During the formulation of that structure’s curved concrete shells, Arup’s team helped write custom software for an early computer, the 1957 Ferranti Pegasus Mark I, to perform structural calculations) For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the company was contracted to help construct all eight new venues in the Chinese capital.

The legacy of this innovator, who died in 1988 at age 92, will be the focus of a new exhibition this summer at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, which opens this month, will be the first major retrospective to explore the life of this pioneering engineer and showcase how his philosophies changed the disciple. Arup’s decades-long path intersected with many of the luminaries of 20th century architecture and design, according to Maria Nicanor, a curator from the V&A’s Design, Architecture and Digital department.

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

"Engineering was indeed always his first love," says Nicanor. "He starts as a philosopher, but gets sick of it. He just wants to get it done. Even though at heart he’s very poetic, and very creative, in his heart, he always goes back to practicality."

While he was building and designing the Kingsgate bridge, his firm was embroiled in the controversial creation of the Sydney Opera House, a multi-year saga that would see genius architect Jorn Utzon driven away from his defining project by financial and political pressure. But in typical fashion—and without losing sight of the Sydney commission—Arup gave his side project intense concentration and creativity, cycling through dozens of drafts and sketches.

"In a way, this little bridge has given me great satisfaction," Arup once told a BBC interviewer. "I had time, and was given peace to work on it, for a long time, there was no hurry about it at all."

Born to upper-class Danish emigres in Newcastle, England, in 1895, Arup was a tall, patrician figure whose philosophic nature flew in the face of many people’s stereotype of the serious engineer. A playful, bespectacled man, he broadcast "an impishness that belied his position," says Rice, who worked for Arup at his eponymous firm for decades. He favored a black French beret, regularly smoked cigars, improvised and composed his own pieces on the piano to relax, and owned a pair of custom-made black lacquered chopsticks that always rode in his front pocket, ready to snatch food from the plate of a fellow diner (friends didn’t complain, since nobody could stay mad at Ove). During the last few years of his life, he became obsessed with designing the perfect chess set, and would bring pieces with him to show to friends and solicit feedback.

Arup was charismatic and contemplative, two characteristics that would bring him great success. But above all, the brilliant mathematician and scholar was an artist. His medium may have been concrete and steel, but his genius was synthesizing the ideas at the root of modernist architectural thought with an understanding of the complexities and possibilities of modern building technology. That fusion seems like a fait accompli after years of steel-and-glass skyscrapers and elaborate reinforced concrete creations. But when Arup was coming up in the 1920s, it was a revelation. Engineering wasn’t necessarily a creative discipline, but as British architect Sir Hugh Casson said, Arup was a man "who was never one to let facts become the enemies of imagination."

When he wrote the following in Ove Arup & Partners, the firm’s 1986 book, he was summarizing the philosophy that shaped modern building.

Science studies particular events to find general law. Engineering makes use of these laws to solve particular problems. In this is it more closely related to art or craft; as in art, its problems are under-defined, there are many solutions, good, bad, or indifferent. The art is, by a synthesis of ends and means, to arrive at a good solution. This is a creative activity, involving imagination, intuition and deliberate choice.

His friends and colleagues saw more in his musings than just the thoughts of an eccentric engineer.

"Somehow, you feel there was more, a complete philosophy which might have shed light on a larger part of the human condition," wrote Peter Rice.

The Arup Crown Chess Set.
© Arup/© Ove Arup Estate

Like any good philosopher, Ove Arup didn’t make up his mind quickly. "Umgekehrt ist auch was wehr," or "the other way around may be equally sound," was a stock phrase familiar to coworkers. When he was asked to give a speech to the entire company later in his life that would summarize his ideas and beliefs, as a means of organizing and transferring company culture, he began his talk, in part, by saying:

In its pre-natal stage, this talk has been honoured with the name of ‘key speech’. It is doubtful whether it can live up to this name. What is it supposed to be the key to? The future of the firm? The philosophy? The aims? At the moment, sitting in my garden and waiting for inspiration, I would be more inclined to call it: ‘Musings of an old gentleman in a garden’ – and leave it at that.

Arup’s probing mind was nurtured by his early love of literature and life’s big questions. After attending the Sorø Academy boarding school in Denmark, he enrolled at Copenhagen University in 1913 to pursue a philosophy degree. Even that pursuit was informed by practical, if high-minded, concerns.

"The nature of truth, the foundation of ethical beliefs and behavior...obviously I had to find out before I could think of a profession," he said. "It seemed rather absurd to me that the object of life should be to earn a living. So I decided to study philosophy."

A doodle by Ove Arup.
© Private Collection

Arup’s embrace of philosophy, however, only lasted a few years. By 1918, the great thinker had tired of the untethered and often ephemeral nature of philosophizing and enrolled at Technical University of Denmark to study engineering and turn his focus to physical accomplishments.

Arup began pursuing this new career at a particularly fortuitous time for someone interested in philosophy, debate, and the changing modern world. He graduated at what could be considered the starting point for Modernist architecture. In 1923, Le Corbusier would release Toward an Architecture, a collection of previous articles that advanced cutting-edge theories and celebrated engineers as heroes. Le Corbusier claimed that engineers, who looked at the laws of nature and pursued utility, were the only ones doing real architecture. Arup viewed Le Corbusier’s work as nothing less than a religious text. (The only building he ever designed wholly by himself, the sleek Labworth Cafe on Canvey Island, which he completed in 1933, owed a serious debt to the early work of the French architect.) At the same time, Walter Gropius was starting the Bauhaus, a revolutionary union of art and technology that pushed cross-discipline collaboration and ideas of standardization and prefabrication. The notion of art, architecture, and science as a holy trinity of sorts, a fusion of practical and design concepts, comes from these thinkers.

All that was left for the young learner was applying these ideas to the real world. In that respect, his first job, for Danish firm Christiani & Nielsen, seems like a letdown. The company specialized in marine construction, such as quay walls and piers, hardly the stuff of heady dreamers or worldchanging designers. But while their projects weren’t sexy, they used reinforced concrete construction, a novel material that would become a backbone of Modernist architecture.

"Christiani & Nielsen came up during an interesting time in Danish history," says Nicanor. "The Danish had gone through a very deep financial crisis, and therefore decided to spend a lot on innovation and science to get out of it. Christiani & Nielsen took advantage of this big public push in engineering and science and did a lot of work with a national purpose. Arup sees this, and understands that it’s an important thing to do."

When Arup arrived in London in 1923, living first with a cousin, then moving into an apartment in Battersea in 1925, the company was pioneering new ways of working. Engineers circulated technical reports from interesting jobs, sharing knowledge and debating ideas, and the company held staff meetings and sent out a company newsletter, commonplace today but quite progressive in the 1920s. The company had a reputation for attracting the best graduates and applying radical design concepts and business techniques. Arup saw that construction wasn’t just theoretical work on a page, but workmen on site mixing materials and sinking piles. To design was really to build, and to build well, concerned with every last detail, was the only way to realize the promise of a great design.

An Arup drawing.
© Arup/© Ove Arup Estate

"The development of modern science and techniques enables us to construct buildings which are satisfactory in every respect: warm, soundproof, well-ventilated, with all the amenities and labour-saving devices one could wish for," Arup once wrote. "Modern buildings as actually constructed, however, aren’t nearly as wonderful."

Arup learned how to work, and, more importantly, how to work with concrete. During the years he worked for the firm in the 1920s and early 1930s, his ideas on good work and design were crystallized, and he seemed to grow more and more attached to his profession. In a 1926 letter in Concrete and Construction Engineering Magazine, he wrote: "a well designed engineering structure generally possesses a quality … accepted as an essential feature of good architecture, namely truth."

Like any good engineer, he had an eye for inefficiencies, and he quickly spotted the issues in how projects were designed and built. Engineers didn’t talk with architects; they were simply handed plans and expected to deliver. Even more troubling to the optimistic Arup was the way consulting engineers, bound to serve the client, always had to keep an eye on contractors, who were interested only in maximizing profit. Arup was reprimanded multiple times during his career at Christini and Nelson for suggesting design changes that would save the client money; he even got the firm blacklisted in a few cases.

"There is no doubt about it, the design which we came across was often shockingly bad," he said in a 1964 interview. "And it is kind of frustrating, when you know that you could save the country thousands of pounds, not to be allowed to do anything about it. And as a contractor, at that time at any rate, you only got about ten per cent of the work you tendered for, and I think that many of my best ideas lie buried in the files of Christiani & Nielsen."

‘Private Ove’ Ove Arup and Partners Christmas Party Pamphlet, 1963.
© Private Collection

Arup’s career in the UK began to take off just as nationalism was on the rise in Germany. Beginning in the early 1930s, Arup and other emigres in London were joined by a stream of intellectuals fleeing from Nazi control. The brain drain caused by fascism would enliven the academic and architecture scene in England and elsewhere, bringing to the capital Modernist and Bauhaus beliefs and new thinkers that would have a lasting influence on Arup’s career.

When Berthold Lubetkin arrived in London in 1931, the charming, Georgian-born avant-garde architect possessed a resume few could match. An associate of Le Corbusier and an avowed Marxist, Lubetkin was also a member of MARS, or the Modern Architecture Research Group, a collective of designers including Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry, and famed Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger, who designed many of London’s famous housing estates. Founded in 1933 and linked to the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, which counted Arup heroes Le Corbusier and Gropius among their members, the organization brought together progressive ideas and architects willing to tear down and rebuild the precepts of architecture.

Labeled "architectural bolsheviks" by the British establishment, the small think tank offered a direct link to the thrilling work happening on the continent. Despite being an engineer, Arup was hooked, referring to Lubetkin as "his first real teacher of architecture." He would become quite close with MARS, and while he didn’t always agree with the group’s ideas (or Lubetkin’s forceful ideology and personality), his background in philosophy, technical skills, and willingness to debate made him a popular member of the group (he was added to the executive committee in 1935).

"He was the only engineer in a group of left-leaning idealists engaged in architectural experimentation, and was frankly the only engineer interested in working with architects," says Nicanor. "It really provided a framework for his philosophy, and gave him the ability to have a say with these architects."

Lubetkin’s firm, Tecton, even sounded like the future, and when he recruited Arup as a consultant in the early 1930s, they formed a partnership that would shape the young Dane’s career.

While they had their arguments, and Arup would later complain about Lubetkin’s forceful nature, the arrangement was unique. The pairing with Lubetkin offered the engineer a chance to be at the cutting edge of his field in relation to concrete construction, and to earn a reputation for being able to work magic with the material. During that decade, while at Christiani & Nielsen and later J. L. Kier & Co.—he switched jobs on the condition he be allowed to focus on "architectural structure"—Arup would collaborate with Lubetkin on an array of projects utilizing reinforced concrete in different, exciting ways.

Penguin Pool, London Zoo, London, 1934.
© ZSL

While both were driven by the possibilities of using concrete to create progressive homes and offices, perhaps their most famous collaboration was meant for penguins. Their streamlined 1934 design for a penguin pool in the London Zoo, a series of elliptical ramps that corkscrew from inside a wading pond, has been a landmarked structure for decades, despite that fact that no animals currently utilize the space. The thin ramps, one of the earliest uses of reinforced concrete in the country, required detailed analysis and research. A celebrated addition to the institution, the structure gave the penguins an arena to "display their comic gait on land and consummate grace in the water," and was an instant hit with visitors (the fact that the sloped ramps gave the penguins arthritis has been called a parable of modernism by some critics).

Lubetkin and Arup would then turn their focus to housing with the Highpoint Towers, which would become a classic in International style design, a Modernist residence that was praised as "an achievement of the first rank" by Le Corbusier himself when he visited shortly after the opening in 1935. Local businessman Sigmund Gestetner had commissioned the development in Highgate Hill in north London as housing for his workers. Versed in modern design, he was an amenable client, allowing Lubetkin to fill the cruciform apartment building with an array of then-modern conveniences, including radiant heating and built-in refrigerators.

"It helped show the public what was possible, what an exciting material reinforced concrete could be," wrote Rice of these early experiments in concrete.

Arup also pushed the envelope on the project, overseeing a construction process called shuttering that utilized removable platforms during wall assembly, reducing the need for scaffolding. (The team won a small £200 prize for the technique, which Arup and Lubetkin spent touring France to observe Le Corbusier’s work in person.) By replacing costly steel foundations with concrete walls, the design offered a significant cost savings and helped to popularize a form of construction that would become a pillar of postwar reconstruction.

The concept reduced the number of cold pour joints—which form when there’s too long of a gap between pouring different layers of concrete—because the walls provided their own support, making the exterior less likely to crack, quicker to finish, and cheaper to put together. At the time, reinforced concrete was still a novelty. Arup’s plans and methods allowed Lubetkin to create an airy, ahead-of-its-time interior, specified down to fixtures and washbasins, that has since been celebrated and landmarked (and helped Lubetkin win the RIBA Gold Medal in 1982). Lubetkin built a stunning villa for himself on the penthouse, which he lived in until 1955, enjoying incredible views of London. The original was so successful, Highgate II was built on a neighboring site in 1938.

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

The duo in many ways set the template for how Arup would operate in the future. Concrete, steel, and glass, the building blocks of modernism, required specialized knowledge, beyond that of a single architect or engineer. Always the philosopher and thinker, Arup was driven by the greater good and ideas for service. Before and during WWII, he would put his engineering expertise to the service of his country, helping to design a prototype bomb shelter that would have been convertible into an underground car park, as well as working as part of the larger team that came up with the famous Mulberry Harbors, massive, prefab floating docks that the Allies used to land troops and supplies in France after the D-Day invasion (Ove designed protective fenders that absorbed the force of multi-ton warships). The construction of these floating docks, built by 45,000 workers in 11 sites across the UK, served as one of the larger covert operations of the war.

But after founding his first company, Arup & Arup, with his cousin Arne in 1938, and then Arup and Partners in 1946, he became focused on his own business. Started in 1946 when he was 50, the firm had a rocky beginning: occasionally, he couldn’t pay employees, and at one point, had to borrow money from Lubetkin to do so. But Arup’s expertise in concrete gave the firm an edge. "They were getting big and little projects, but everyone knew that if you needed something done with concrete, they were the one," says Nicanor. Arup’s genial personality helped, too—Rice would say that he joined Arup’s firm because "it was a place where an oddball could fit in," and employees recall the famous summer parties where the firm would go boating on the River Thames, with Ove playing accordion on the top deck of a rented barge—earning him the loyalty of a cadre of famous engineers.

Arup, which now employs hundreds of architects, engineers, and designers across the globe, has become one of the preeminent design and consulting firms in the world. The ideals of the Key Speech, and Arup’s concept of total design, have been firmly ingrained in the company culture and have given it the foundation to create truly groundbreaking projects.

In a century of architecture defined by machines, modernism, and metal, Ove Arup’s philosophical bent, combining the optimism of technology with the cynic’s search for truth, has shown that it takes a unique thinker to really understand the perils and promise of modern architecture. On his 88th birthday, while speaking to the Fellowship of Engineering in September 1983, Arup summed up the 20th century, and perhaps his profession, in the way only a philosopher could: "It is my conviction that whilst we have become very clever at doing almost anything we like," he said, "we are very backward in choosing the right things to do." Fortunately for the development of modern architecture and engineering, the inquisitive Ove Arup never had that problem: he always knew how to ask the right questions.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design runs from June 18 through November 6.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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