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Ove Arup: The Most Influential Engineer of the 20th Century

The ultimate magician, the hidden hand of the engineer rarely gets the credit it deserves. To coincide with a retrospective running at the V&A, Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, we lift the curtain on the greatest civil engineer of the 20th century

“Engineering is central to human progress – almost nothing is invented without it,” writes Gregory Hodkinson, chairman of Arup Group, in the glossy tome Design Book: Total Design Over Time, “and Sir Ove Arup was an extraordinary engineer who was deeply concerned with that process.” With a philosophy underpinned by a belief in the reciprocal roles of engineering in design, and vice versa, Arup ’s Total Design vision was shaped by humanistic as well as technical ideologies; the impact of design, big and small, on society. While his approach was open-minded and holistic, taking into account all of the disciplines and skills required for construction, his goal was always to give people a better quality of life through creative engineering.  

With an extensive portfolio that includes some of the world’s most famous structures, Ove (1895-1988) was often the discreet technical genius behind the buzz. Probably his most famous construction, discussions regarding the Sydney Opera House began in the 1950s. The complex design work for the iconic pre-cast concrete shells was achieved through the then pioneering use of computers to model the roof and analyse the structure. The discovery of the ‘spherical solution’ was a turning point for devising the final, buildable version. In this scheme, the roof was based on the geometry of a single sphere, while each triangle that formed the outer surface of the roof was a portion of that sphere. The solution, demonstrated by this model, gave the roof the desired shape, and crucially, a geometric regularity that allowed parts to be prefabricated as repeating components.
Another notable Arup construction is Kingsgate Bridge. Built in 1963, the bridge over the River Wear connects Durham University’s 19th-century buildings on the cathedral peninsula to the campus south of the river, and it is in fact the last project that the engineer designed. In line with his total design philosophy, he made the joining mechanism for the two halves of the bridge a feature in itself, with a ‘T’ that points to the town and a ‘U’ that points to the university, with two cylinders between them to allow for movement. At the time, he described the bridge, with its iconic 90-degree angles, as “the complete integration of architecture, structure and method construction”. The sophisticated simplicity of its symmetrical design was both aesthetically pleasing and practical; fabricated on site, the two halves were simply swung together in 40 minutes.

With its cutting edge, spiral-shaped ramp, London Zoo’s penguin pool was one of the first structures ever to use reinforced concrete. Designed to mimic the creatures’ natural habitat, the project put Ove Arup’s name, as well as the architectural firm Tecton (led by Berthold Lubetkin), on the map when it was built in 1934. 

Arup was nothing if not versatile, and during the Second World War, was one of few who worked on the temporary and portable Mulberry Harbours to enable the Allied invasion of Normandy. In so doing, he was partly responsible for a revolutionary type of concrete fender. Over the channel, another Arup landmark includes Centre Georges Pompidou, a complex steel super-structure in the heart of Paris, which came about as a result of a winning competition entry in 1971, and inspired future buildings by redefining open spatial planning inside. 

“The inside-out building turned the world of architecture upside-down”, according to Arup’s Design Book. Other notable achievements include the Lloyd’s building in London, the first post-war building to be Grade I listed.

Having come from a privileged background, Ove Arup was strongly influenced by his academic studies in philosophy, which he would often articulate in his unique, charismatic manner. “There are two ways of looking at the work you do to earn a living,” Arup famously told an audience in Winchester in 1970, in a presentation that is still compulsory reading for anyone who joins Arup, the eponymous firm he founded in 1946.

“One is the way propounded by the late Henry Ford: work is a necessary evil, but modern technology will reduce it to a minimum. Your life is your leisure lived in your ‘free’ time. The other is: to make your work interesting and rewarding. You enjoy both your work and your leisure. We opt uncompromisingly for the second way.” 

Known as Arup’s ‘Key Speech’, he went on to discuss the pursuit of happiness. He saw only two options: to act in only your own self-interest, regardless of the consequences to others; or, to recognise that no man is an island, and that real happiness in isolation is impossible. “We, again, opt for the second way,” he said. “Our work should be interesting and rewarding.”  

One of the most notable visionaries of his day, the Arup firm he founded continues to carry the Ove Arup baton today, and is one of the top engineering consultancies in the world, still guided by the Total Design philosophy – joining all the professions right from the start by housing them under one unifying name. 

To name one of a countless number of schemes, Arup won the largest design package for Crossrail, which included the detailed design for the twin-bored tunnels, and Tottenham Court Road station. It was also appointed for the civil, structural, geotechnical and building services of the Canary Wharf Crossrail station. All in all, Arup has had significant design input into six of the ten new stations and has provided the project with numerous specialist services such as acoustic and fire engineering, archaeology, and sustainability consultancy.

In an effort to bring to light the ‘art behind the art’, the Victoria and Albert Museum has spent the last few months welcoming visitors to its Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design exhibition. The first major retrospective of the work of arguably the most influential engineer of the 20th century, it is a key feature of the museum’s debut engineering season, which highlights engineers as the unsung heroes of design. It explores more than 150 previously unseen prototypes, blueprints, models, drawings, doodles, photographs and films, as well as a host of new immersive digital displays containing animations, simulations and augmented reality, spanning a century of work.

‘When it comes to creativity and the arts, the worlds of design, fashion and architecture tend to grab our attention,’ writes Martin Roth, director of the V&A, in Design Book. ‘But when we look a little closer to appreciate the wonderful façade on our favourite building, the performance of a car, or the mysterious ease with which something just ‘works’, often what we are admiring is the work of the engineer… It is their work that not only interprets and brings a vision to life, but frequently has 
a hand in its design.’

As well as a behind-the-scenes look at Arup’s key projects, more obscure highlights give a closer insight into his more whimsical side. These include a portrait of Ove Arup with a handwritten dedication by the architect Le Corbusier, which has never been on public display before. Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, Towards a New Architecture, which celebrated the importance of the engineer, had a profound influence on Arup, and the portrait hung on his office wall until his death in 1988.

Arup’s idiosyncrasies and passion for the arts as well as engineering were highly unusual at the time, and his witty persona and artistic nature translated into a compulsion for doodling. Appearing on notebook pages, meeting agenda documents and accompanying his own poems and notes, Arup’s playful sketches express his animated mind.

In addition to the exhibition, a series of major cutting-edge engineering projects from around the world by British engineering firms such as AKT II, Atelier One, BuroHappold Engineering, Expedition Engineering and Jane Wernick Associates are currently available to view in the free display Mind over Matter in the V&A + RIBA Architecture Gallery, and reflect London’s status as an engineering capital, and Britain as a world leader in creativity and design. Roth says: “Engineering is so important to the world we live in. We should give it the recognition – and respect – that it deserves."

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, supported by Volkswagen Group, with additional support from Tideway, runs until 6 November at the V&A, www.vam.ac.uk/EngineeringSeason

Design Book: Total Design Over Time, £30, available to buy from www.harriman-house.com