The late Danish-British engineer Ove Arup was responsible for some of the world’s most iconic buildings. He didn’t design them; he built them. Before his death in 1988, Arup brought his groundbreaking techniques to realise projects from the penguin pool at London Zoo to the Sydney Opera House. The firm he founded is now a multinational empire whose current projects include Crossrail. In short, Arup is a very big deal.
Even so, this show might be a hard sell. Engineers are quiet achievers, overshadowed by architects and designers. Everyone knows it takes innovation and imagination to design a beautiful building. The show’s prototypes, models, drawings, photographs and films make it clear that those skills are also crucial for those who make buildings work. The Sydney Opera House could never have been built without Arup. Commissioned in 1957, it was finally completed in 1973. Through the ’50s and ’60s, Arup and his team went through plan after plan, trying to find a way to build the now-famous shells. They finally cracked it using a computer – a pioneering approach that transformed the way engineers work. That computer – a colossal box – is on display at the V&A alongside tanks of gurgling algae, a more recent Arup innovation that uses photosynthesis to heat buildings.
The emphasis here is on Arup and his company’s huge projects, but small details provide a glimpse into his personality: his own slides of the Opera House under construction; his doodles and party invitations.
Arup once said that design is all about ‘defining a sensible way of building’. ‘Engineering the World’ builds a picture of man with a knack for applying blue-sky thinking to the most down-to-earth problems.
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