Peter Rice: An Engineer Imagines

Peter Rice is possibly the best known structural engineer of the 20th century – projects he worked on are some of the best known today: the Sydney Opera House, Beauborg (Pompidou Centre, Paris), Pavilion of the Future at the Seville Expo, Lloyds of London.

It is hard to work out whether is achieves mastery of each material, or is just clever enough to push his way to achieve remarkable and interesting results in any problem he chooses. I hope it is the former though the quotes sometimes suggest otherwise. ‘A juggernaught, crushing the obstacles of practicality and cost, for us to build what we liked’ and someone who sees the build world as a place for exploitation, a place that ‘will have to become more complex to absorb our energies and occupy us fully’? Or is he someone who shares Ove Arup’s position on man’s position within the environment, and how the man’s power should be best harnessed.

Rice never mentions real issues with cost or time in his projects, a constant backdrop to almost any modern work. It seems the engineering world has ‘tightened up’ a lot since his day. However, I don’t think his power to place himself at the center of some of the most exciting projects, largely through his relationships with several of the leading architects of his day, should be underestimated (also, the book is supposed to be a celebration of engineering life). Looking at the cross section through the roof at the Menil art gallery there is a sumptuous level of detail that I cannot believe would survive a modern project – though the situation of the project (wealthy and interested private client, influential and trusting architect) is probably more important than its time period. Rice’s ability to persuade others to work in a new material was clearly impressive – I am not convinced that he really needed to work in cast iron for the Manil Gallery. A similar prediciment occurs for the Pavillion of the Future – a little fussy in steel and stone – though he certainly met the ‘spectacular’ part of the design brief. And again on the Pompidou center, was an optimisation of column thickness and the use of unusual centrifugally spun steel sections really beneficial?

Rice really seems to design from the ‘material up’ – he takes all his details from the particular abilities of each material and often seems to work outwards from there. Glass takes carefully designed point loads from its strength – so hang it from the top corners in sheets and support those against the wind with a separate structure. Polycarbonate has flexibility and little strength – so contain it with large areas in contact with glue adhering them, and carefully clamped details – and limit its structural role to a shear link between timber chords.

Do read, though skip the chapter on horse racing.

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