From apes' house to opera house

Jonathan Glancey salutes the achievements of Ove Arup, the late, great philosophical engineer who was born 100 years ago
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The Independent Culture
Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Bari football stadium, Stansted Airport, the Hotel du Dpartement in Marseilles and the astonishing Kansai International Airport in Japan. What do these world-famous buildings have in common? All are engineered by Ove Arup & Partners.

From bridges and telecommunications towers, sewage treatment plants to wind tunnels, to the most sophisticated architecture of the past 50 years, Ove Arup & Partners has been indispensable not just in the construction of great buildings, but also in their design and development.

It would take an architect of phenomenal arrogance to pretend that Arup was a mere assistant in its most successful projects. No, Arup is rarely less than joint-designer, an engineer with far more than a functional approach to making poetic structures stand. Without it, architects such as Jorn Utzon (Sydney Opera House), Renzo Piano (Kansai International Airport, Bari Stadium and the Pompidou Centre), Richard Rogers (Pompidou Centre), Norman Foster (Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank and Stansted Airport) and Will Alsop (Hotel du Dpartement) would never be as highly regarded as they are.

In recognition of this, two of Arup's engineers have won the prestigious Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, out of only three members of their profession in more than 150 years. In 1992, the medal was awarded to the late Peter Rice (whose first job with Arup was to find a way of building the nun's wimples, or concrete waves, that form the turbulent roof of Sydney Opera House). In 1966, the medal went to the man who nurtured Rice, Ove Arup, the extraordinary Scandinavian engineer who founded the company that now carries his name in 50 branches in 40 countries worldwide.

Arup has a staff of some 4,000 engineers, recruits 100 engineering graduates a year, is currently working in 56 countries and maintains a research and design team of 50 engineers at the leading edge of their profession. And despite the death of its pioneering founder in 1988, the firm shows no sign of letting up the pace.

That pace was set 100 years ago, when Ove Nyquist Arup was born in Newcastle to a Danish father and Norwegian mother. He was raised in Hamburg and educated in Copenhagen, studying philosophy before turning to engineering. He began work with Christiani & Nielsen, pioneers, in reinforced concrete construction, who in 1926 sent him to run their London branch, where he became a passionate advocate of Modern architecture. Before Arup, perhaps only Owen Williams (designer and engineer of the massive Boots distribution centre at Beeson, near Nottingham) had made such a major contribution to the development of reinforced concrete structures.

In Britain, Arup worked first on the design of functional service structures, before designing a seaside caf at Canvey Island (1932) and, the following year, meeting Berthold Lubetkin, the maverick Russian architect with whom he developed a whole new relationship between designer and structural engineer. Working together on a succession of radical and memorable buildings, starting with the Gorilla House at London Zoo (1933), then the zoo's famous Penguin Pool (1934) and the Highpoint flats at Highgate (from 1935), Arup and Lubetkin went on to design some of the best working-class housing immediately after the Second World War, in London's Finsbury, Paddington and Bethnal Green.

What Arup developed in those years of collaboration with Lubetkin was a processs he called "total architecture", in which a building was the result of democratic teamwork between engineer and architect, and where the boundaries between engineering and architecture became blurred to the point of being invisible.

When he first met young Modern architects in Britain, Arup said that they felt "obliged to build in reinforced concrete, because that is what Le Corbusier did ... they knew what the result was meant to look like, but settled for building walls in brick and then dressing them up to look like concrete". This was, of course, farcical because Modern movement buildings were meant to be "honest" in their structure.

Arup showed them not just how to build in concrete, but how to design with concrete. At Highpoint One, for example, he encouraged Lubetkin to abandon a conventional, space-consuming concrete frame in favour of exterior concrete panels that carried the whole weight of the building. This allowed Lubetkin maximum room for architectural maneouvre inside.

Arup set up his own engineering practice in 1946, first in Soho and, three years later, in Fitzrovia. Arup himself was never less than unconventional. He was also deeply kind and treated his staff as family. Rice, perhaps his most inspired protg, joined Ove Arup & Partners because he had heard it was a place an oddball could fit into - "the atmosphere of Arup's helped me survive," he said.

The atmosphere was created by the gangling engineer, a man incapable of finishing sentences (because his brain was always in overdrive), who ate with Japanese chopsticks, nabbing food from other people's plates even at the most formal dinners (because he liked food and because his curiosity would get the better of him).

Jack Zunz, another of the great Arup engineers, remembers being given a lift by the "old man". Leaving the office one evening, Arup crashed almost immediately into a lamp-post. Zunz recalls Arup's response: "Naughty lamp-post!"

"What Arup created," says Zunz, "was a culture of inquiry, of curiosity and examination, where questioning and taking nothing for granted were sine qua non." Much respected, Arup was always an outsider, a radical humanist and philosopher searching, as he liked to say, for the "illusory objective of truth".

That culture of inquiry led Arup to work on the most interesting British buildings from 1945 onwards - the Brynmawr rubber factory at Ebbw Vale, Coventry Cathedral and St Catherine's College, Oxford, among them. A separate architectural office, Arup Associates, was set up in 1963, producing in its early days such gentle buildings as the Snape Concert Hall in Suffolk and in the boom years of the Eighties such refined commercial buildings as No 1, Finsbury Square, the steel and glass cornerstone of the Broadgate development on the fringe of the City of London.

Arup himself, although intimately involved with the companies that bore his name,became less engaged with day-to-day projects by the mid-Sixties. He did, however, spend much time designing the Kingsgate pedestrian bridge that spans the River Wear in the face of Durham Cathedral, completed in 1966. It was his favourite of his own designs, and was to spawn such truly beautiful works as the Kylesku Bridge (1978-84), which carries the carriageways of the A894 on curving concrete sections supported by long V-frames across a Highland riverbed - a bridge you drive over, turn around and drive back over in an act of shameless pleasure.

Ove Arup died at 92, encumbered with a knighthood and laden with honorary thises and thats. What mattered was that this inspired engineer had produced an interdisciplinary construction team that continues to explore the full potential of the engineering into architecture equation. Sometimes, Ove Arup & Partners takes on dull buildings and one never quite knows why, but on the whole it remains riveted to the ideals of its founder.

"Arup's competence," says Renzo Piano, "comes from the same source as ours: we have experience and we do not disperse it. We keep it in the office in big archives. We are like a living library."

Look at the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, with its exquisite intertwined helical ramps of reinforced concrete; cross the bridge over the River Wear at Durham; drive over the Kylesku Bridge: they all connect, telling a story of imaginative engineering that, ultimately, has given us such stunning buildings as the Sydney Opera House, Bari Stadium and Kansai International Airport.