A major retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London shows how Ove Arup’s Total Design philosophy is as fresh today as it was when first conceived.
As is clear from its title, at the heart of a new, and first-ever, retrospective of engineer and philosopher Sir Ove Arup is his concept of “Total Design” – the desire to join all professions right from the start of any project.
The Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design exhibition explores how Arup pursued an emerging new relationship, primarily between architects and engineers, through more than 150 previously unseen prototypes, models, archival materials, drawings, films and photographs. Iconic and groundbreaking projects such as the Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the firm’s work on Crossrail all feature, as well as collaborations with leading architects including Berthold Lubetkin, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.
For those working in the firm today, the exhibition is a triumph and, according to Arup deputy chairman Tristram Carfrae, and no doubt many others. It represents a rare occasion to celebrate the work of engineers.
Penguin Pool London Zoo, 1934
“What we’ve gained from the process is a sense of pride – it gives us an external view of ourselves that isn’t normally available,” he tells New Civil Engineer.
“We did a bit of research at the beginning and we found that the most recent engineering exhibition at a major national cultural institution was 17 years ago at the Pompidou.”
The opportunity to mainstream the work of Ove Arup came about two and a half years ago, through Arup Design Council chairman Sir John Sorrell – former chair of the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment and the Design Council; and also a trustee at the V&A.
Sorrell introduced Carfrae – also part of the Arup Design Council – to V&A director Martin Roth, and it turns out the timing was impeccable.
What we’ve gained from the process is a sense of pride – it gives us an external view of ourselves that isn’t normally available
Tristram Carfrae, Arup
“We were trying to persuade [those in Arup] that it was actually a creative design organisation as well as a firm of engineers, in that engineering is a creative act,” explains Carfrae.
“Coincidentally, at the same time I was trying to persuade Arup that engineering was a creative activity, Martin was trying to persuade the V&A that engineering was creative activity.”
The V&A’s wider Engineering Season, and the Ove Arup exhibition was born.
Work and legacy
Focusing on the work and legacy of the man, rather than a commercially successful engineering firm, was an important distinction in giving the exhibition validity and independence. A point worth making as one media outlet suggested, incorrectly, the organisation paid for the privilege of being featured. In fact, sponsors of the Engineering Season are Tideway and Volkswagen.
Sir Ove Arup by Godfrey Argent, 25 April 1969
Source: © National Portrait Gallery, London
The exhibition begins with a portrait of Ove Arup, his education in philosophy, mathematics and engineering, his career-changing move to London in 1923, and encounters with architects Walter Gropius and Le Courbusier; and includes his early projects such as the London Zoo Penguin Pool.
It then journeys through five decades of his career with the firm he established, highlighting work on the Mulberry temporary harbours for the D-Day landings, his concept for improving war time shelters and mega-projects such as the Sydney Opera House and Pompidou.
The exhibition rounds off with Arup after Ove, examining his legacy.
It is this legacy that is fascinating today. The concept of “Total Architecture” that morphs into “Total Design” is the forerunner to today’s buzzword “collaboration”.
Arup learned early on that bringing teams together as early as possible, and working together in a new way, led to the best possible outcome for projects.
Creating a revolution
How he helped to create a revolution in bridging the gap between architects and engineers is well explored in the exhibition – and citations for both are given next to each exhibit. What is less explored is how contractors and the rest of the supply chain are part of this.
This was despite the curators’ emphasis on how the constructibility of the Sydney Opera House was vital to its successful design.
“The Sydney Opera House model, shows that the erection arch was all about construction,” says Carfrae. “And that erection arch was devised not by us, but by Hornibrook, the builder.”
“The [lack of contractor emphasis in the exhibition] is definitely very unfortunate because there was an individual, Corbett Gore from Hornibrook, and it was his attitude to can do, will do and how’s the best way to do it, that really made a success of that phase of the Opera House.”
Sydney Opera House under construction, 6 April 1966
Source: © Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd. Courtesy Australian Air Photos
Collaboration still has further to go, according to Carfrae. “The digital age allows collaboration in an additional way to our traditional physical means of collaboration. Our ability to collaborate increases - around documents, models, data, ultimately around design is increasing.
“Projects are much better when everybody is in the room together from the beginning. There is an English, slight reticence towards design and build. For me that’s just better Total Design.”
Projects are much better when everybody is in the room together from the beginning
Tristram Carfrae, Arup
The exhibition has inspired another thought for the future for Carfrae.
“The V&A is filled with beautiful objects and that’s what we normally think of as design,” he states. “The exhibition, perhaps unwittingly, reinforced the idea that the engineer is part of the creation of these beautifully designed objects. But it’s still an object focused exhibition – whether the object is Sydney Opera house, Kingsgate Bridge or even the more modern Wikihouse.
“Infrastructure – the non-object part of engineering – was perhaps less than I hoped.”
Ship docked at Mulberry harbour, 1944
Source: © Imperial War Museum
So Arup has come up with a plan.
“We have an ambition to perhaps create an app so people can find out more about the engineering of their actual environment as they move around the city of London.
“It’s fraught with difficulties – for example, it is not a good thing from a bomb threat point of view to have a view of the Underground station beneath your feet.
“But the principle of trying to explain to people by using augmented reality to provide x-ray vision so they can see all the systems and things behind the object themselves is something we’d like to try.”
- Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design runs until 6 November and is part of the Engineering Season at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London