Posted on behalf of Jo Baker
He was the structural innovator behind Sydney Opera House, founded the world’s leading engineering consultancy, and pioneered the philosophy of “total design” — the equal partnership of engineers, architects and designers in construction. Anglo-Danish engineer Ove Arup (1895-1988) is now celebrated in this first retrospective of his work, Engineering the World, at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, part of its Engineering Season.
On show are 150 never-before-exhibited sketches, technical drawings, architectural models, photographs, calculations and manifestos from a century of work by Arup and his colleagues at his eponymous consultancy, whose forerunner he set up in 1938. The compact show (funded by Arup) is squeezed into a room-sized cage of red steel beams copied from those of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which Arup co-designed with architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in the mid-1970s. The explanatory panels are worth scrutiny: they reveal Arup’s interest in science and early computing, his playful character and his enthusiasm for training the next generation of engineers.
Born in Newcastle, UK, Arup became interested in philosophy and engineering while at school in Denmark. He studied both disciplines at university in Copenhagen, graduating in 1922 with a specialism in reinforced concrete. Equally passionate about the arts, he was influenced by the Modernist movement — which promoted the idea that science and technology could improve society — and its luminaries, such as architects Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) and Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus group.
One of Arup’s early projects was the 1934 Penguin Pool at London Zoo. After studying penguin behaviour, he designed its thin gravity-defying spiral of interlocking ramps in concrete while working as a structural consultant for Berthold Lubetkin’s radical Tecton architectural partnership in London. The ramps’ curves were based on complex mathematics, and Arup’s calculations and notes are on display.
Arup had a strong sense of civic duty and designed air-raid shelters during the Second World War. His concepts were grand and controversial — massive concrete basements large enough to host hundreds of cars and people. (The government preferred small shelters.) Arup also worked on the Mulberry harbours, prefabricated temporary ports deployed during the 1944 Allied invasion in Normandy. He was responsible for a small but crucial element: a shock-absorbing fender that permitted the ships to dock. Photographs and technical drawings are on show.
Sydney Opera House is perhaps Arup’s most famous post-war project, and drawings and models of its design and construction form a focus of the exhibition. Faced with a freeform sketch of a collection of ‘sails’ by its Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, Arup pioneered the use of computers to solve the problem of how to build it from precast concrete. At the time most engineers still used slide rules and tables of logarithms. By renting a Ferranti Pegasus computer by the hour from the University of Southampton and writing their own software, Arup and his colleagues saved 10 years of manual calculations.
The exhibition includes a wooden conceptual model explaining the solution he eventually conceived in 1961: sections cut from a sphere. A 2-metre-long wooden replica of the opera house used in wind tunnel tests is on show, along with charts illustrating airflow around it. When Utzon dropped out midway through the project, Arup took the construction to completion in 1973.
Arup eventually turned from engineering to shaping a new generation of engineers. In the 1970s and 80s successors emerged, including Peter Rice, Ted Happold and Mike Glover, who worked with architects including Piano, Rogers and Norman Foster on projects such as the Menil Collection gallery in Houston. A tilting model of the gallery — known for its naturally lit spaces — reveals how sun and shadows fall on the building through the day and year.
Engineering the World concludes with a look at the company today. Arup’s philosophy is still shared by its 12,000 employees in more than 90 offices around the world. A glass panel full of bubbling green liquid turns out to be a living façade where algae in an aerated soup of nutrients generate heat and biofuel. A section of wooden wall is part of a ‘wikihouse’ – a collaborative unfolding design for a home.
Arup’s ashes were scattered over a footbridge he designed: Durham’s Kingsgate, opened in 1963 and one of his favourites. He built it by rotating two halves into place — fittingly, for one whose creativity linked engineering and design.
Jo Baker is senior Comment editor at Nature.
Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, through 6 November. The V&A Engineering Season features displays, digital initiatives and a newly commissioned installation, Elytra Filament Pavilion, by experimental engineer Achim Menges with Moritz Dorstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate-responsive engineer Thomas Auer. Inspired by filament structures of flying beetles’ forewing shells, the pavilion’s canopy is created from robotically fabricated carbon-fibre cells. Sensors in the canopy will capture anonymous data from the behaviour of visitors, allowing it to evolve.
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