Povl Ahm

Former chairman of Ove Arup Partnership
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The Independent Online

Povl Ahm, civil engineer: born Aarhus, Denmark 26 September 1926; associate partner, Ove Arup and Partners (from 1977 Ove Arup Partnership) 1956-65, partner 1965-77, director 1977-89, chairman 1989-92; CBE 1993; married 1953 Birgit Møller (two sons); died Harpenden, Hertfordshire 15 May 2005.

In a long and distinguished career as a civil engineer, Povl Ahm was responsible for the design of some iconic structures. Although born and educated in Denmark, he spent nearly all his working life in Britain with the consulting engineers and designers Arup.

He graduated from the Polyteknisk Læreanstalt in Copenhagen (now the Technical University) in 1949, and came to London, where he joined the newly established firm of Ove Arup and Partners; he made rapid progress, becoming associate partner in 1956, a full partner in 1965 and, when the practice became a company in 1977, a director. He was chairman from 1989 until he retired in 1992.

Ahm was proud of his chosen profession and did not have any doubts about the value of engineering; he followed the principle that it is the responsibility of engineers to use their skills for the common good. At Arup, he found an environment where he could put his expertise in the design of advanced structures and his interest in architecture into practice.

His first job was the responsibility for the structure of the new Coventry Cathedral, working with the architect Basil Spence; this was followed by early conceptual design studies for the Sydney Opera House. Over the years, Ahm and his team engineered many buildings including Sussex University, Smithfield Market in London, St Catherine's College, Oxford, the Pompidou Centre, the British embassy in Rome and the Danish embassy in London.

Ahm applied the Arup approach to buildings - where engineer and architect worked together in a close relationship that Ove Arup called "total architecture" - to his work in the civil engineering field. Ahm was determined to demonstrate that, just as good-quality building depends on teamwork, so too does good-quality civil engineering. "Total architecture" was also "total engineering" or "total design". Civil engineering also offered the opportunity for the engineer to be involved in all phases of the project, concerned not only with what is to be built and how, but also with why.

Given the firm's reputation and skills in structural engineering, it was natural for it to seek work on the design of bridges. Bridges are an essential part of transport projects, which at the time were administered by public authorities working with well-established consultants. That Arup succeeded in winning the first projects owes much to Povl Ahm's drive, perseverance and dedication.

He won his first bridge project, the Gateshead Viaduct, in 1965, and established a specialist transport group within the firm. This was followed by a highway, the Gateshead Western Bypass, and a major section of an urban railway, the Tyne and Wear Metro. The group expanded to include all the skills required for the planning and design of transport projects. A number of imaginative bridges resulted, many of which won awards.

From 1981 to 1986 Ahm was chairman of the Client/Consultant Relationship Committee of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), and started its work on the Guide to the Client-Consultant Model Services Agreement, now the standard reference throughout the world. In Britain he was Chairman of the Council of the Association of Consulting Engineers in 1992-96. He was appointed CBE in 1993, and the same year won the first Gold Medal of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Warwick University honoured him with a doctorate in 1994, at a ceremony in Coventry Cathedral, which had been his first project in England.

Ahm was an active sportsman and a keen amateur footballer. He was a goalkeeper for the London-based team Corinthian Casuals, and played in the 1956 Amateur Cup Finals at Wembley.

Although he lived in England for 52 years he kept close to his Danish roots. He had married Birgit Møller in 1953, and together they created a distinctly Danish home in Harpenden, designed with Jørn Utzon - architect of the Sydney Opera House - and furnished with the best of Danish design. Later he built a country house in Denmark, designed by an architect friend, Jørgen Richter, where the family spent their holidays.

Povl Ahm was tall and distinctive; you noticed him. He lived by values that may now be thought out of fashion: by trust, integrity and honesty. He was well built, was never away from work due to illness, and when he finally became ill he fought the cancer with characteristic resolve and confounded the forecasts of his doctors.

Jørgen Nissen