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The Independent Culture
It is Engineering Week and the BBC has responded to the aggrieved laments of engineers with admirable vigour. Indeed, you could argue that their solution to the problem (too few programmes about engineers) involved what even engineers might consider an unpleasing redundancy. On Monday night, for example, Omnibus (BBC1) narrowly beat Tuesday's The Limit (BBC2) into Norman Foster's luminous riverside atelier (it would be interesting to know if this involved any hasty changes to the batting order). One of these programmes was part of Grand Designs, a BBC2 series about engineering, while the other wasn't. Hardly an instance of elegant design, even if the two teams managed not to grate against each other too much.

Still, by some good fortune (I think we can discount foresight) Omnibus had avoided the central subject of The Limit, which was about Norman Foster's design for the Millennium Tower, a skyscraper twice the height of any existing building. The previous night you had been told of Foster's essential "innocence" by his friend Bruce McLean. Last night you could see it in action, as he enthused with winning excitement over the plans for this Dan Dare scheme, an elegant spike which would up-end a city and send it through the clouds. Foster is collaborating with an amiable Japanese engineer called Keizo Shimizu, apparently the love child of Max Wall and Felicity Kendal. Like Foster, he is a small boy at heart; he was visibly thrilled by his first visit to the Empire State Building and, at another point, he solemnly lay down on an earthquake research institute's test bed to see what it would have been like to wake up to the Kobe earthquake. It makes your eyes water, if his reaction is anything to go by.

The shape and aesthetics of the tower appear to have been dictated by engineering solutions - a good example of Foster's contention that "the best architecture is the best engineering". This is not a new thought, more a paraphrase of the classic modernist tenet that "form follows function", but one of the lessons of the last 40 years has been just how malleable function can be - it is not a stern master after all, but rather a biddable assistant, prepared to underwrite the wildest reveries. The Millennium Tower is round because of wind shear, cone-shaped because there's no other way of getting the structure high enough, and cross-gartered because that's the best way to spread the forces involved. But why is it so tall? For no better (and no worse) reason than that Foster and Shimizu find the idea completely thrilling. "All they need now is a client," said the narration, after this tale of engineering heroism. That's all? The film should have ended with Foster and Shimizu in a karaoke bar, belting out the project's unofficial theme tune: "Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest heights. Let's go fly a kite and send it soaring."

The Unseen Hand (BBC2), later in the evening, was an act of reparation, restoring credit to engineers who rarely get their names on great buildings, but without whom those buildings would probably fall down. The more arrogant architects (there was one on show here), view engineers as a tedious necessity - a safety belt which hampers the free movement of their imagination. Others recognise that without an engineer their vision would never make it from the frontal cortex on to the streets. The film ended by looking at Sir Michael Hopkins's Inland Revenue building in Nottingham, an intriguing blend of vernacular brick and hi-tech natural air-conditioning. Instead of being a box with machines attached to make it bearable, the building has become a machine itself. Unfortunately, as in all air-conditioning, you do get bugs cluttering up the innards. In a cheeky conclusion, The Unseen Hand left you with the hitherto unseen punters, filmed through a heat-sensitive camera in the Inland Revenue staff bar: "It doesn't bloody work," yelled one glowing figure from the window, a well-oiled spanner in the architect's spotless works.

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