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Engineering with a passion

COVER STORY: ICE president - Mark Whitby takes over as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers next week. Antony Oliver deciphers his message.

After a couple of hours chatting to Mark Whitby in and around his office in Newman Street, the capital's new creative heartland, even he admits to being exhausted.

This is not really surprising as in this time his mind has raced through a thousand issues, the conversation leaping with his thoughts through the subjects of bridges, solar powered aircraft, local associations, knowledge sharing, steam engines, power cells, sustainability, urban design, modern art and the culture of engineering.

And much more of course.

Whitby can talk, and is the first to accept that his often radical ranting is not to everyone's taste.

He is not perhaps everybody's cup of tea as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers - for that matter any other public position.

'I do wind people up and I am abrupt, ' he says. 'I don't stand on ceremony - my heart is on my sleeve so that everyone knows exactly where I am on issues.

But enthusiasm is contagious. I am an optimist and I can see the future through things that are happening.'

He adds: 'I know I communicate that enthusiasm in this office and if the ICE membership picks up on that, then that's great.'

Whitby hopes he will make a refreshing change at Great George Street and that he will be able to 'challenge some of the conventional thinking that often needs challenging'.

The first job on his list, which he describes as 'probably the single biggest contribution that I make to the Institution', will be to find a successor for Mike Casebourne. And while he adamantly denies any role in Casebourne's departure, he privately accepts he is likely to end up with the blame.

But none of this really fazes Whitby in his unconventional world. Some might call it innocence. The less generous might see it as a sign of arrogance.

Either way, it is hard to deny that this open style has brought him success. Since he founded Whitby Bird & Partners with Bryn Bird in 1983 it has grown to become a £16M turnover multidisciplinary firm with 270 staff.

In this time Whitby has attempted to champion the unusual, challenge conventions in design and not be restricted by working only for construction clients.

And he has achieved much of this with some success. Having parted company with Bird, the firm has continued to grow in stature to become one of the most fashionable engineering consultancies in the UK.

While getting involved with projects such as the Stirling Prize and BCIA nominated British Embassy in Berlin and Chelsea Football Club's new West Stand, Whitby is also proud of his involvement with clients like Electronic Arts, the SimCity computer game developer.

And he is keen to continue his work with television production companies. His latest projects are follow ups to programmes where he demonstrated the secrets of ancient engineers such as moving a Stonehenge monolith and raising Pharoah's Obelisk.

For despite his great love for design, architecture, art and objects of beauty, Whitby is straightforward about his main passion. 'I love engineering and I am an engineer - there is no question about it.' It is this passion and enthusiasm that he hopes will create great differences around the ICE during his presidential year.

He deliberately does not limit himself to any division of engineering as he prefers to consider himself a practitioner and enthusiast across the entire spectrum of the profession.

'Civil engineering is the nearest that you can get in this world to being an engineer, ' he explains. 'I have never been constrained in what I do by being a member of the ICE. But my career didn't develop along the lines of 'I always wanted to be an engineer'.'

He says that instead he has considered many different careers since studying civil engineering at London University in 1972. 'I was thinking about being an architect, and I applied to be a landscape architect. But by the time I was about 30 I actually became comfortable with being an engineer.'

The aircraft engine in the reception of his central London office and the model steam engine in the design office both underline his attraction to the beauty in engineering.

The engine, for the record, has been lent to him by the Rolls Royce Heritage Trust and is an air cooled radial engine as used in second world war Beaufighter aircraft. It is not that he harks back to any good old days of engineering , rather that he seeks constantly to engender a context and culture for his work.

'If engineers do not understand their culture, they are never going to be proud of themselves, ' he says. 'I am very keen that engineers belong first within the culture of engineering.'

It is a world in which he is very comfortable. Whether it is radical bridge design, satellite navigation for cars or the development of lead free petrol, Whitby is utterly convinced that he has a contribution to make.

He refers, for example, to the new breed of solar powered aircraft now circling the earth to provide low cost satellite replacements as prime examples of great engineering. 'But what's it got to do with me?' he says people might ask. 'Well it makes you realise what we can do, ' is his reply.

Certain groups of engineers, he says, within the ICE, the Royal Academy and the Engineering Council, have views disconnected from the reality of life. 'I run a business, I am an engineer, ' exclaims Whitby. 'I don't call myself anything other than an engineer. And that is fantastic.'

There is no doubt that Whitby is looking forward to having the platform of the ICE presidency to widen his audience. But he insists that it is no ego trip.

'I don't do what I do to promote myself, ' he says. 'To be absolutely honest I don't need the Institution to get myself on TV. I believe I am there because people think I can help.'

His TV appearances following the 11 September World Trade Center disaster, for example, were about helping to engage society in the wider issues and reassuring from a position of knowledge.

He is very critical of many others that spoke at the time. 'I saw engineer after engineer stand up and talk about the World Trade Center as a success because it stood up, ' he argues. 'But it was an absolute disaster.'

Whitby likens the attitude of the engineering community over this to the reaction to the Millennium Bridge's wobbles. 'I group the two incidents together.'

It is such outspoken views that have often landed him in hot water around the ICE and the profession. Whether it is challenging elitism in the profession or trying to get the ICE to spend its money on modern art, he rarely treads a diplomatic or political line.

But there is no doubt he has mellowed over time.

'I'm now thinking about cleaning the existing pictures, ' he jokes. 'I have changed - it has changed me. The place has an effect. But I am still keen that we create an environment where youthful enthusiasm is nourished.'

Whitby himself considers that in many ways he is an unlikely candidate for getting so involved in the ICE's affairs. He says it may not have happened but for a sharply worded letter sent 10 years ago to then president Peter Stott.

'I was warmer in those days, ' explains Whitby while admitting he still retains a 'cooler' room in the office to deal with any lingering mood fluctuations. Stott encouraged him to become a Fellow and to join Council. ''I want your point of view in this Institution, ' was what he told me, ' says Whitby.

The ICE set a trap and he fell into it, Whitby laughs. 'This is not the sort of thing that someone of my age with a business of my nature should be doing. If my business was owned by anybody else my share holders would not allow me to be president.'

That said, Whitby is keen to prove it is possible to do the job and continue a career and that it is therefore not something that you have to do at the end of your professional life. He expects to increase his current day and a half a week commitment to around three days a week at the ICE.

'I wasn't first choice - I'm not even sure that I was second choice, ' he admits. 'I know the person who was asked ahead of me and she would have made a fantastic president. She thought she couldn't do the job even with the support of a very big business around her. It was a terrible shame.'

So having taken on the job his priorities are straightforward.

Whitby wants to convert the ICE into an institution fit to engage with the outside world. This means being able to influence key issues such as sustainability and urban design.

But he want the ICE and its members to act in harmony with other professionals, to act in a way that the outside world can really get to grips with.

He raves about the success of the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL) which he chairs. 'We now have a single group of people to promote urban design and the net effect has been fantastic, ' he says. 'We have got programmes engaged with government and education and have raised the whole level of urban design.'

He feels that the engineering institutions must now get together to create the same for sustainability. 'I am going to try during my presidency to encourage the formation of that. I have already talked to them about the concept - now we have to make it work.'

But while there is no doubting his commitment to the ICE he insists that it is not his job to promote the particular interests of the ICE.

'I'm interested in serving the public, ' he says. 'We have to group ourselves so that government can access a point of contact and link to a series of professional groups.'

Whitby's track record of getting things done at the ICE is solid. He was, after all, the champion against elitism and architect of the recent changes to the ICE membership structure whereby both Incorporated and Chartered engineers can become Members.

These were, he explains, cultural changes necessary to stop the Institution evolving in the wrong direction.

He has other plans to help give the ICE more relevance, such as boosting the quality and clout of the executive committee to govern the Institution better, reforming the process of electing presidents and turning Council into a proper debating chamber with proper issues to debate.

He also wants to see it become far easier - and more appropriate - for engineers to migrate between institutions and share knowledge across the profession. 'I don't give a monkey's what degrees people studied provided they are bright, enthusiastic and can contribute.'

Engineers, he believes, may start their lives in electronics but end up finding a home at the ICE.

Handing more responsibility to the local associations - 'dissolving Great George Street' as he puts it - is fundamental to the changes he wants to see. And he insists that LAs must step forward to command his attention.

'I am not going to go to local associations to just do the usual one day or two day visits, ' he explains, fully aware that this change to tradition may put some noses out of joint. 'But if you can come forward with events along the lines of my agenda I'll be up your trouser leg like a ferret.'

Events such as the South West association's planned sustainability conference next year, really get him excited. This will be held at the Eden project with the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, and will get his full backing.

But what ICE headquarters must continue to do and improve on is its role as a learned society.

Too often, he feels, the profession has been let down by the ICE's lack of initiative.

Failings with London's wobbling Millennium footbridge could, he insists by way of example, have been avoided had the whole profession been involved in the debate earlier.

'It was an Institutional failing for not making it happen, ' says Whitby. 'But the other failing is that bigger organisations have become isolated and believe themselves to have become institutions in their own right.' It is up to the likes of the ICE to challenge this thinking.

'We have got to get people like Arup to lower the drawbridge, ' he claims. 'The knowledge sharing function of the Institution of Civil Engineers is fundamental to its being. We have got to create a culture in which our profession flourishes.'

This is of course another of Whitby's controversial and debate-creating thoughts which will no doubt be a feature of next year. In fact his entire presidential address is, he says, designed to be debated at local association level and then by Council.

And whether or not his views are seen as a championing civil engineering is irrelevant.

'I'm promoting engineering as president of the ICE, ' Whitby says. 'I'm here for engineering as a whole and not to do specific good for civil engineering, but I believe that I can do great good for civil engineering by promoting the bigger picture.'

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