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Structural masters


British engineers have been at the forefront of efforts to push the boundaries of structural design this century. David Bennett highlights the achievements of the best.

In the early half of this century a handful of brilliant structural engineers pioneered many of the century's key innovations and concepts in building design.

One of the leading lights in this elite group was Owen Williams, a unique individual who was an accomplished architect but was better known as a gifted structural engineer. Williams must be the icon of what every structural engineer dreams of achieving - total control of the design process of architecture and engineering.

His design for the Boots Wets building in Beeston, built in 1932 was arguably the forerunner of post-modern, high-tech architecture. Williams designed a functional structure that was sheathed in curved black glass panels. He took over the entire design brief from architect Ellis & Clarke of a series of 'functional' yet elegantly engineered Daily Express buildings in London, Glasgow and Manchester between 1929 and 1931.

He was also the consulting engineer for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1921 working with architect Maxwell Ayrton. And it was at Wembley that Williams designed the original Wembley Stadium for the Empire Exhibition in 1924, as well as his celebrated concrete masterpiece, the Empire Pool.

It was engineered architecture at its best, creating the largest covered swimming pool in the world, with a roof span of 70m. The external identity of the building is expressed by the 14 rows of three pin portal frames spaced 6.7m apart that run down the sides of the building and the now redundant water towers at each gable.

Its structural honesty and plainness is its strength. There are no embellishments or decorative panels to cloak the facade. In an age where there were no computers, and analysis was by hand calculations, line force diagrams and the counterbalancing of the structural elements, this was a daring and innovative building.

In the second half of the century the names of Ronald Jenkins, Ted Happold and Chris Wise, Sam Price and Robert Myers all of whom worked for Arup, deserve mention. Between them they developed tensegrity structures, lightweight roof canopies, elegantly engineered buildings and worked with some of leading architects of their time.

Ronald Jenkins was the mathematician extraordinaire who analysed the Sydney Opera House Roof and inspired Peter Rice to great things; Ted Happold was probably the finest teacher of engineering and design philosophy this century during his tenure as Professor of Engineering at Bath University.

Happold designed wonderful building structures with many of the leading architectural practices of his day, such as Basil Spence, Trevor Dannatt, E Hollamb and Jorg Gribi. He was closely associated with the work of architect Frei Otto. Among the memorable buildings they devised are the tensile structures of the Conference Centre for Mecca built in 1966, the Kuwait Sport Centre completed in 1970 and the timber grid shell structure for the Mannhiem Garden Show in 1976.

The structures consultancy founded by Sam Price and Robert Myers has been linked with an eclectic group of architects over the past two decades. Since they set up on their own in the 1970s, they have rarely had to tout for work - architects approach them.

They are equally at home on new build projects collaborating with architects such as Van Heyningen & Haward and Nicholas Hare as they are working on sensitive restorations. They have been associated with two highly acclaimed buildings - one in steel and the other in concrete - the Lord's Cricket School with David Morely (1995) and St Johns College, Oxford, with MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (1993).

More recently, Chris Wise has achieved cult status among engineers and architects particularly for his design work for Arup on the Barcelona telecommunications tower, completed in 1992, the American Air Museum at Duxford (1997) and Cranfield Library Building (1992), all in collaboration with architect Foster & Partners.

He was also responsible for proposing helical external bracing in the design study for Obayashi on the Millennium Tower for Tokyo - which will be the tallest building structure in the world should it be built.

But it is Peter Rice and Anthony Hunt who stand out as finest structural engineers of the last 50 years.

'Peter Rice is not like any other engineer. He does not wait for the architect to develop ideas and then offer options on how to prop it up. He is a strategist who is at his best working on understanding the nature of the brief and the clients wishes,' said his close friend and associate, architect Richard Rogers. 'He is a true virtuoso - steel, stone, wood, plastic, concrete or carbon fibre are all his materials.'

Rice was born in Ireland and studied engineering at Queens University Belfast and Imperial College London. He joined Ove Arup in 1956 and was associated with some of the most significant buildings of the 1970s and 1980s, up until his death in 1992. His contributions to the art of structural engineering are wide ranging and include the strikingly innovative structure for the Centre Pompidou in Paris completed in 1971.

With the architect Renzo Piano he invented collapsible fabric tent structures for temporary housing in Italy. One of the most innovative results of his collaboration with Piano was the ductile iron sun screen and roof canopy for the Menil Collection Museum in Houston (1981), Rice also explored the use of polycarbonate glass, timber and cast aluminium for the IBM Pavilion in Italy (1981).

Rice's most celebrated structures include the Lloyd's Building (1986), designed with Richard Rogers. This is claimed to be the first intelligent building structure, characterised by articulated precast concrete joints and external bracing members.

Rice's outstanding contribution to structural engineering in architecture has inspired a generation of building designers in all disciplines. He once said: 'By going back into the materials (we choose) and using them as authentically as they can be used, we will recover some of the lost ground (in humanising our buildings), and that's probably the contribution the engineer can make to architecture.' Anthony Hunt left school at 16 and worked as a laboratory technician at a university for seven years while studying engineering on a day release course run by Westminster Technical College. After passing his City & Guilds exams, Hunt was articled to a stuffy engineering practice but found enlightenment when he was sent on a design course to the Cement & Concrete Association in Wexham Springs.

'I had heard people talking about the exciting practice of Samuely, Arup and Freeman Fox, so I sent my CV with a covering letter to Samuely and they took me on. I spent eight happy years with them,' says Hunt.

Through Samuely he got to know the leading architects of the day - Lyons Israel & Ellis, Neave Brown, Chris Dean and James Stirling. Hunt eventually set up on his own and in his first two years was kept busy by Frank Newby with freelance design work.

Hunt's big break came in 1964 with the Team 4 architectural practice, founded by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and Terry Farrell, when they won the design competition for the Reliant Controls Factory in Swindon. Built to a very tight budget, it was a very lightweight structure - a glorified shed - that broke new ground in the social and technological organisation of the workplace.

The Willis Faber Dumas (1978) office building in Ipswich consolidated many of the design themes and ideas that were explored in Hunt's and Foster's previous projects. Its light, transparent, glass clad structure with raised floors, a central atrium and central bank of escalators was the precursor to the Hong- kong & Shanghai Bank design.

Another Hunt landmark came in 1977 with the completion of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at East Anglia University. The building's main tubular steel prismatic framework has deep triangular trusses acting as simply supported beams spanning 35m on to lattice columns as vertical cantilevers.

In the 1990s Hunt worked on the spectacular glazed canopy for Waterloo International station in London with Nicholas Grimshaw. The structure had a unique sequence of eccentrically centred, blue steel arches, reflecting the alignment of the rails converging at the station entrance. Then it was the turn of Huddersfield Town's Alfred McApline Stadium to steal the headlines in 1994.

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