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Rice’s design for life

Eminent Irish-born engineer Peter Rice is the subject of a new exhibition in London which explores his approach to life and design through drawings, models and photographs and interviews with colleagues and family. Ruby Kitching reports.

Peter Rice and Geoffrey Booth

Source: Credit: Peter Morice

Peter Rice and Geoffrey Booth working on the structural behaviour of the Sydney Opera House’s shell roofs, circa 1958.

There is a generation of engineers unfamiliar with the work of Peter Rice (1935-1992), one of the most influential structural engineers of the late 20th century. This is perhaps because he died 20 years ago, but also because he has a curious legacy which means that architects quote his name more often than engineers.

He was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1992 for his contribution to architecture and, at the time, architect Renzo Piano said: “Peter Rice has given us a great contribution to anchor the art of architecture to real life, science and modernity”. Yet Rice was always clear to point out he was an engineer and not an architect, nor a hybrid.

“Peter Rice has given us a great contribution to anchor the art of architecture to real life, science and modernity”

Renzo Piano, architecht

 

He worked for consultant Arup, eventually becoming a partner, and the firm has organised an exhibition to demonstrate his uniqueness. Entitled, Traces of Peter Rice, the exhibition is accompanied by a book of essays produced in collaboration with Culture Ireland, the Centre Culturel Irlandais and the Irish Office of Public Works describing how he approached life and work with his inimitable understanding and enthusiasm for engineering, nature and art.

Rice was guided by a desire to explore the use of different materials in innovative ways to produce structures which are welcoming, daring and inspiring. He also had a talent for designing with themes in mind, such as “transparency” or “light” and was an advocate for collaborative working from the earliest opportunity to develop the bestsolutions.

Aerial view of the Pompidou Centre

French connection: An Aerial view of the Pompidou Centre

The title of the book and exhibition is based on a play on words often used by Rice to describe the quality of a structural detail which demonstrates craftsmanship and, hence, a more human connection to an inanimate building. This, he described as, “traces de la main”.

Three projects demonstrate these qualities in the exhibition. They are the Centre Pompidou, Paris, with its giant cast steel gerberette connections and exoskeleton structure; the Menil Collection museum, Texas, and its sculptural ferro-cement and ductile iron roof, and the Full-Moon Theatre in the Languedoc, which uses giant hand-made mirrors to reflect the light of the moon onto an open-air amphitheatre stage.

A new online biography, produced by www.engineeringtimelines.com and short film, will also feature in the exhibition based on archive material and new interviews with colleagues and family.

Together, they explain the multifaceted nature of Rice: he was as enthusiastic about poetry, theatre, horse racing and football as he was about mathematics, structural engineering and architecture.

As well as the projects profiled in the exhibition, the website profiles his contribution to others: the shell roofs of the Sydney Opera House, the Lloyds building in the City of London, the fabric structures of the Lords Mound Stand, London, and the colossal stone arches of the Pavilion of the Future, Seville. It also includes projects executed under his own company, RFR, such as the delicately braced glass facades (Serres) at La Villette and canopy at La Defense, Paris.

Rice was guided by a desire to explore the use of different materials in innovative ways to produce structures which are welcoming, daring and inspiring. He also had a talent for designing with themes in mind, such as “transparency” or “light”

Traces of Peter Rice

The exhibition celebrating the life and work of structural engineer Peter Rice runs from 27 November 2012 to 5 April 2013.

■ Opening times Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm (and by appointment), admission free.
■ Venue Arup, Phase 2 8 Fitzroy Street, London W1T 4BJ.
■ Further details The exhibition will also visit Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, from 14 May 2013 to 28 June 2013 and then to the Farmleigh Gallery, Dublin, 10October 2013 to 23 December 2013. The accompanying book will be published by The Lilliput Press.

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