Obituary: Peter Rice
Thursday 29 October 1992
PETER RICE, said Renzo Piano, the Italian architect with whom Rice collaborated on some of the most imaginative buildings of the past 25 years, designed structures 'like a pianist who can play with his eyes shut; he understands the basic nature of structures so well that he can afford to think in the darkness about what might be possible beyond the obvious.'
Rice was one of the most rigorous and imaginative structural engineers of his generation, much loved by the architects he worked with - most notably Sir Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano - and for whom he made possible some of the most unlikely and adventurous buildings of any age. Without Rice there would have been no Sydney Opera House (the first building he worked on, from the age of 23), no Centre Pompidou, no Lloyd's building and no Pavilion of the Future at Expo '92, Seville, the last finished design he worked on. Or at least, these designs would have turned out very differently without him.
In July this year, the British architectural profession paid homage to Rice by awarding him the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, an accolade that rarely comes the way of engineers. One previous recipient was the brilliant Danish engineer Ove Arup with whom Rice made his career when he joined Ove Arup & Partners fresh from college in 1958. Although he was to set up his own practice, RFR, in Paris with Martin Francis and Ian Ritchie after the completion of the Centre Pompidou in 1977, Rice remained a hyperactive partner and director of Arup's, based in London.
Fond of poetry, philosophy, mathematics, racing, football (he was an avid QPR supporter), wild flowers, wine (which he collected) and whisky (Scotch before Irish), Rice was, perhaps, the James Joyce of structural engineering. His poetic invention, his ability to turn accepted ideas on their head and his rigorous mathematical and philosophical logic made him both one of the most sought-after engineers of our times and an inspiration to the legion of young engineers who followed in his wake. A tireless and most informal chatterbox, he was able to disarm the most pompous client and win over the shyest student.
Rice was born in rural Ulster, a place, he said, 'where architecture and engineering simply didn't exist'. A natural mathematician, he studied engineering first at Queen's University, Belfast and then at Imperial College, London. Taken on by Ove Arup, his first job was the seemingly impossible task of raising the gull-beak roofs of Sydney Opera House designed by the Finnish architect Jorn Utzon.
From then on his career was as meteoric as it was peripatetic, commissions taking him to Paris (Centre Pompidou, with Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano), Houston (Menil Art Collection museum, with Renzo Piano), Bari (San Nicola World Cup stadium, with Renzo Piano) and Japan, where he worked with Piano on the design of the new Kansai International Airport.
In Britain, his best-known works are the Lloyd's building (with Richard Rogers) and the new terminal at Stansted Airport (with Sir Norman Foster). His latest structure was the vertiginous stone arcade fronting the Pavilion of the Future at the Seville Expo. This free-standing filigree screen made an entirely new and daring use of stone, a material that, for Rice, had as lively a future as steel, concrete and textiles.
In the speech he made at the Royal Gold Medal ceremony in London in July, Rice said that structural engineers have been expected to play the role of Shakespeare's Iago, who undermined the love of Othello and Desdemona by reducing to reason their every unreasonable act or feeling. The engineer has been seen to reduce every unreasonable and soaring idea an architect might have. The true role of the engineer, said Rice, was not to reduce, but to explore materials and structures as had the great Victorian engineers and medieval cathedral- builders he so admired.
Yet although buildings Rice worked on - such as Lloyd's, the Pompidou centre, the De Menil museum, Stansted airport and the new TGV stations for the SNCF - are imbued with the same art, logic and humanity that makes Beauvais Cathedral or the Clifton suspension bridge so stirring, Rice and the architects he worked hand-in-glove with have yet to convince most builders, developers, princes and the sceptical British public that honestly expressed and supremely imaginative structures are superior to cheapskate buildings clad in corny Post-Modern or pseudo-historic fancy dress.
Rice lived his life at a tremendous pace; in recent years he spent a day a week in Paris and a day a fortnight with Renzo Piano in Genoa. A brain tumour began to slow him down a year ago and he was forced to stop jetting backwards and forwards to Japan, where he was working on the construction of Kansai Airport. He worked for the last year of his life from his home in Shepherd's Bush, west London. A very private family man and a much-loved husband and father, he had previously kept the weight of his work well away from home. He carried on working, dreaming and exploring new ideas, as everyone expected him to do, until his death at the beginning of this week.
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