THE structural engineer has long been the butler of the building world. Architects with Napoleonic profiles and big blue shirts such as Sir Richard Rogers steal the limelight. Engineers such as Peter Rice, who has made possible Rogers's Lloyd's headquarters in the City of London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, bustle discreetly but purposefully in the shadow of the architects' massive visions. Yet the distinctive look of such buildings is clearly only achievable through an intimate collaboration.
On Monday night Rice was dragged gently out of the shadows to receive the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, the highest accolade the world's architectural profession has to offer. His 'sponsors', who led him on-stage at the Royal Institute of British Architects' headquarters in London, were Rogers (in a big blue shirt) and Renzo Piano, architects of the Pompidou Centre and two men who would have had to invent Rice if he had not existed.
Peter Rice cut a curious figure in the lecture hall of the RIBA. As Irish as blarney, his cosy frame topped with a silk Indian cap to hide the scars of recent operations for a brain tumour, this James Joyce of an engineer (nothing is impossible and everything he does has its own satisfying, if sometimes wilful, logic) beamed with delight as he addressed the ranks of architects in front of him. Royal Gold Medals for Architecture are rarely given to engineers, but as Rogers reminded his audience, Rice is the successor to Brunelleschi, Paxton, Brunel, Eiffel and, more recently, Ove Arup, the great Danish engineer (winner of the Royal Gold Medal in 1966), and founder of the firm for which Rice works.
Rice, said Rogers, is a designer of buildings as much as an engineer, a man who turns technical problems into poetic solutions. He pointed out to the packed hall that Rice's contribution to some buildings, such as Lloyd's and the Pompidou Centre, can be seen as the dominant one.
When the Prince of Wales opened the Inmos silicon chip plant in south Wales (a brilliant insect-like structure designed by Rogers, engineered by Rice) he commented to the architects: 'I see the engineers have got the better of you' - as if the building, with its polished nuts, bolts and split-pins, had never been touched by the hand of an architect.
Of Lloyd's there are many people who, perhaps mistaking it for an oil refinery, have said: 'I can see the engineering, but where's the architecture?'
Peter Rice is no ordinary structural engineer. Born in rural Ireland in 1935, where, he says, 'architecture and engineering simply didn't exist', he had a natural bent for mathematics. His father chose his profession for him and he studied at Queen's University, Belfast and Imperial College, London.
Rice's talent was precocious; taken on by Ove Arup when he graduated in 1957, his first project was the seemingly impossible task of building the eye-boggling roof for the Sydney Opera House, since its completion in 1966 one of the best known and most bizarre buildings in the world.
Rice's next great challenge was the Pompidou Centre (1971-77, Piano and Rogers) and since then he has worked on the design and structure of the most dramatic European buildings of the past 15 years, including Lloyd's (Rogers), San Nicola Stadium, Bari (the World Cup football stadium by Renzo Piano), the Schlumberger research laboratories, Cambridge (Michael Hopkins) and the new terminal at Stansted airport (Sir Norman Foster).
The list of his current projects is formidable: the TGV stations at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and at Lille; Kansai airport terminal building on a man-made island off the Japanese coast (with Piano); and the New Groninger Museum at Groningen, the Netherlands, with the Milanese architect Alessandro Mendini and the Manhattan artist Frank Stella.
Traditionally, says Rice, structural engineers are 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. In terms of building, this means the engineer is seen to reduce every unreasonable and soaring idea an architect might have. The engineer's true role, Rice says, is not to reduce, but to explore structures, as did the great Victorian engineers and the builders of Europe's Gothic cathedrals.
The reason, he believes, that so many modern buildings are unloved is not because of their style or materials they are built from, but because, unlike those medieval cathedrals and Victorian bridges, the process of modern building is a remote one: it is no longer possible to see the evidence of human participation in their construction, nor to see the true nature of the materials from which they are made.
This is not because architects have tried to hide the imprint of human hands, but because the building industry has standardised virtually every component of every building. Engineers, says Rice, have a duty to humanise the construction process, and so make architecture enjoyable again.
There is no reason, he says, why familiar materials cannot be used in new ways - although he admits to being excited by every new material that comes his way. Rice has designed a daring structure for the free-standing stone facade in front of the Pavilion of the Future at the Seville Expo, by the Barcelona- based architects Martorell Bohigas and Mackay.
The filigree stone arcade - 290m (950ft) long and 40m (130ft) high - is constructed of computer-cut slabs of Galician granite; surely there has never been such a tall, slender and daring stone screen? It is a work of the imagination (helped by the computer), yet the stones support themselves readily and prove that in the febrile mind of an engineer such as Rice, old building technologies are ripe for exploration.
Ironically, as Rice makes clear, the technology for cutting stone with such exactitude comes from the rise of the very buildings that give contemporary architecture a bad name: the Post-Modern office block, that great city centre rent- slab that masquerades behind a facade of classically trimmed and polished granite, cut wafer-thin.
For Renzo Piano, a friend and colleague for more than 20 years, Rice is a 'great humanist', a man to whom the 'creative process is never linear but a loop'. Rice, he says, 'designs 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 close his eyes and think in the darkness about what could be possible.'
As to who designs what in startling projects such as the floating Kansai airport, Piano says: 'I don't know where Peter starts and Renzo begins or where Renzo begins and Peter starts.'
There can have been few recipients of the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture as popular as Peter Rice. This is not just because he is a modest and very likeable genius, but because the best architects in the world desperately need his massive contribution.
Yet, although buildings such as Lloyd's, Pompidou, the De Menil museum in Houston, Stansted airport and the new TGV stations for the SNCF in France are imbued with the same humanity that makes Beauvais Cathedral or the Clifton suspension bridge so stirring, Rice and the architects he works hand-in-glove with still have a long way to go to convince builders, developers, princes and the majority of their public that honestly expressed and supremely imaginative structures are superior to cheapskate buildings clad in fancy dress. Still, Sydney Opera House is now as much a symbol of Australia as the kangaroo, and if anything, its structure is even harder to grasp than than of the high-kicking marsupial.
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