OBITUARY: Professor Sir Edmund Happold

Dennis Sharpe
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:58

Ted Happold was an unusual figure in the construction world: an engineer's architect and an architect's engineer. "A world which sees art and engineering as divided is not seeing the world as a whole," he wrote.

His world-wide reputation stems from his creative and humane approach to structural design and his intimate involvement with the development of the new structural principles of celebrated modern buildings including the Pompidou Centre, Paris (with Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and two others he won the competition to design it in 1971), the Sainsbury Extension of Worcester College, Oxford (with the architects MacCormac Jameson and Prichard), the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (with Renton Howard Wood Levin), and a succession of structures in Europe and the Middle East in conjunction with the German architect Rolf Gutbrod and the architect/engineer and lightweight structure expert Frei Otto, both at Arup's and later with Buro Happold.

Born and educated in Leeds, Happold began his professional career working for a short time for the celebrated Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Afterwards he joined Ove Arup and Partners in 1956 when the structural work for Basil Spence's Coventry Cathedral and Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House was on the go in their London office.

In 1958 he left Arup's for the United States, where he spent two years with the New York consultants Severud, Elstad and Kruger, and was particularly influenced by Eero Saarinen's organically curved, tensile-roofed David S. Ingalls Ice Hockey Stadium at Yale, which he worked on. He returned to London and to Arup's in 1961 where he headed the radical unit known as "Structures 3" until 1976. That year he founded Buro Happold, Bath, a practice that today has a staff of 200, and several other offices in Britain and abroad. The New York office is currently completing lightweight structures for the Atlanta Olympics, while the British offices are working with Sir Norman Foster on the Faisal Foundation Complex in Riyadh.

During Happold's time at Arup's an impressive portfolio of structural engineering work was built up in which he became actively involved with the design teams from Sir Basil Spence's office (then working on Sussex University and Knightsbridge Barracks), and with Ted Hollamby and Lambeth Borough Council (on Central Hill Housing). He worked on a conference centre in Riyadh with Trevor Dannatt (1966), and on another (with a hotel) using lightweight tensile structures at Mecca (also 1966) with Rolf Gutbrod and Frei Otto that won a major Aga Khan Award.

Happold often spoke of the debt he owed to Professor James Gordon of Reading University and his analysis of the biological and organic nature of structure and to his close friendship with Frei Otto, who further stimulated his interest in lightweight tensile structures. His remark of Otto, "He never stops learning and thinking, and the results of that transcend fashion", could as easily be applied to Happold himself.

The work with Gutbrod and Otto included the highly regarded Diplomatic Club, Riyadh (1986) that fused modern constructional techniques with a traditional tented exterior and high protecting walls as well as the lightweight long-span Sports Hall for King Abdul Aziz at Jeddah (1977) and the sensuously shaped Mannheim Garden Show Pavilions (1975). With Otto and Richard Burton of ABK (Ahrend Burton Koralek) he also contributed to an experiment in the use of green timbers for structural purposes at John Makepeace's Furniture Training School, at Hooke Park, Dorset.

He made three important engineering innovations: the "umbrella" at Mecca, fan-shaped, hanging roof forms stabilised by the dead weight of cladding and insulation; the two layers of grid shells (themselves designed by Otto) in the Mannheim pavilions, used to give them strength against buckling; and, at the Munich Aviary, stainless-steel woven metal introduced to produce a free-shape organic support to bear the weight of snow.

From 1976, when he became Professor of Building Engineering, and occasional Head of the School of Architecture and Engineering, at Bath University, Happold's enthusiasms were brought into focus for two new generations of students from both disciplines. He contributed to the new and sympathetic understanding - and synthesis of ideas - so clearly observable between architects and engineers over the past few years through his involvement in numerous bodies: on boards, working groups, committees and juries, including acting as the first chairman of the influential Construction Industry Council. He brought together representatives of many persuasions within the construction industry in a non-adversarial manner, in line with his own Quaker background.

Ted Happold was a man with ideas, a stimulating ability to convey them and to solve problems. Who could forget the lengthy and often incredibly funny descriptions he would give of a problem recently solved, or his infectious enthusiasm for finding alternative solutions to other seemingly intractable problems? He dealt as capably with business matters as with theoretical and creative questions. Recently he came up with a sensible cost proposal in less than 24 hours on a rather complicated job my office was about to undertake - chiding me, "Give me a bit longer next time".

Dennis Sharp

Edmund Happold, engineer: born Leeds 8 November 1930; Senior Engineer, then Associate, later Executive Partner, Ove Arup & Partners 1960-76; Senior Partner, Buro Happold 1976-96; Professor of Building Engineering, Bath University 1976-96; Vice- President, Institute of Structural Engineers 1982-86, Gold Medallist 1992; RDI 1983; FEng 1983; Chairman, Construction Industry Council 1988- 91; Vice- President, Royal Society of Arts 1991-96; Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art 1993; Kt 1994; married 1967 Evelyn Matthews (two sons); died Bath 12 January 1996.

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