Bridging our gap with engineering

This summer the V&A will finally give the back room boys of the built environment their day in the sun. Could this show signal a new dawn?

The Menil Collection, Houston Texas, section in bas relief on blueprint shows Arup working with Piano and Fitzgerald architects (2009).
The Menil Collection, Houston Texas, section in bas relief on blueprint shows Arup working with Piano and Fitzgerald architects (2009). · Credit: Courtesy Fondazione Renzo Piano

Architecture has long been hailed as that rare bird that perches equally between art and science, but in its current cowed state – crippled by bizarrely restricted justification methods and severely lacking the breadth of skills that might qualify it as an intelligent generalist – it’s arguably not up to the job.

Meanwhile, another discipline has embraced emergent technologies without losing traditional skills, has consistently projected visionary futures while keeping pragmatic feet firmly on the ground, is at once fiercely intuitive and technically virtuous, has kept a handle on the value it contributes to projects, and has maintained a healthy collaborative attitude both internally and outwardly with other fields. 

What is this extraordinary field? Why engineering of course. While architecture has been giving it all away, engineering has been quietly getting on with it. Walking into an architecture office is like walking into a coven of disgruntled vampires. Walking into an engineer’s office is like walking into a glade of bright cherubs happily skipping between beautiful hand drawings, beautiful algorithms, and plans for a run in the daylight hours that magically exist after work is over. But all is not lost, dear vampires, for in truth we are one, and the time is now upon us when we can begin to heal this rift.

Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the South Kensington Museum (formally Museum of Manufacturers) was split into the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum. The looms were taken over the road to the Science Museum, while the things that were made on them stayed behind at what became the V&A.

  • Sir Ove Arup (1969).
    Sir Ove Arup (1969). · Credit: Godfrey Argent National Portrait Gallery
  • Doodle by Ove Arup.
    Doodle by Ove Arup. · Credit: Private Collection
  • Ove Arup's Christmas Party Pamphlet 1963.
    Ove Arup's Christmas Party Pamphlet 1963. · Credit: Private Collection

Ove Arup did not buy into this distinction; one could hardly expect an outspoken philosopher and engineer to accept such a disjunctive paradigm. By placing an exhibition on Ove Arup at the heart of the first Engineering Season to be held at the V&A, the museum too is signalling that it’s time for this misguided chasm to be bridged. The show seeks to exhibit engineering as a rich form of design thinking that is innovative, intuitive, inspiring, and indispensible with both mind-blowing technological stories and relatable human stories all worthy of exhibition at an internationally renowned museum.

The engineering season has a new type of programming structure which the V&A is experimenting with. It comprises exhibitions, installations and events around a theme. The exhibition will last from May to November 2016 and aims to bring discussions about engineering back to the museum – which was founded with a mission to support engineering, industrial design and how art and science meet.  

Zofia Trafas White, co-curator of the exhibition, describes its content, objectives, and some of the issues the team encountered when curating a show about engineering – an endeavour with very few precedents. 

  • Inspiration for  Achim Menges pavilion, a comparison of internal elytron architecture_in_flying and flightless beetle.
    Inspiration for Achim Menges pavilion, a comparison of internal elytron architecture_in_flying and flightless beetle. · Credit: Dr. Thomas van de Kamp Prof. Dr. Hartmut Greven
  • A rendering of the Elytra Filament Pavilion.
    A rendering of the Elytra Filament Pavilion. · Credit: ICDITKE University of Stuttgart 2
  • Synchronized robots winding the pavilion's filaments.
    Synchronized robots winding the pavilion's filaments. · Credit: ICDITKE University of Stuttgart

At its centre is the first large scale exhibition on Ove Arup, whose career spanning the early-mid 20th century provides a historical anchor to explore the emergence of engineering as a creative, disciplined design process.  A series of installations will include a carbon fibre pavilion woven by robots created by experimental architect Achim Menges with Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate engineer Thomas Auer. 

The curators’ objective for the exhibition is to reveal the invisible; to shed the limelight on objects and processes that aren’t normally considered precious or deserving of a celebratory exhibition. Many of the objects to be displayed were made to be poked at and tested, and if they have survived have been casually sitting in drawers, forgotten about rather than formally archived.

Trafas White describes how the show is hoping to redress the balance in terms of the creative credit engineers have historically received by revealing engineering as a unique type of design thinking. Over the course of the century covered by the exhibition, the relationship between architect and engineer goes from creative leader and pragmatic problem solver, to a seamless integration. However it seems that while this collaboration has benefited projects, the deeper embedding of the engineer within the design team has further obscured the profession’s contribution and therefore credit. The V&A is seeking to unravel these entangled roles to expose the incredible invisible goings-on.

  • Penguin Pool London Zoo London 1934
    Penguin Pool London Zoo London 1934 · Credit: ZSL
  • Sydney Opera House under construction 6 April 1966 Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd.
    Sydney Opera House under construction 6 April 1966 Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd. · Credit: Courtesy Australian Air Photos
  • View of Kingsgate Bridge Durham 1963
    View of Kingsgate Bridge Durham 1963 · Credit: Reproduced by permission of Durham University Library
  • Ship docked at Mulberry harbour (1944).
    Ship docked at Mulberry harbour (1944). · Credit: Imperial War Museum
  • Exterior view of Centre Pompidou Paris France
    Exterior view of Centre Pompidou Paris France · Credit: Ian Dagnall Alamy Stock Photo

There are few precedents for large-scale exhibitions on this topic; Trafas White describes the process of curating an exhibition on engineering as breaking new ground. With the first architecture biennales dating only back to the 1980s, curating architecture at all is relatively new and there are similar challenges here where you can’t display or even recreate the thing itself, only the story around it. Therefore the artefacts, for example the annotations on a drawing or test model, become evidence from the processes. The curatorial response to this constraint is to embrace the working process by welcoming the audience to a behind-the-scenes atmosphere. Interestingly, this might reinforce the notion of engineering as an invisible machine, toiling away behind the pretty stage sets of life.

Trafas White told me of the dangers of drawing conclusions about the ego of the engineer compared with the ego of the architect. One thing we can say is that Ove Arup wrote himself into history also by writing himself out; by setting up his company so that it could survive and thrive without him. Moreover, his legacy goes beyond his own practice. London’s creative engineering practices read like a tree diagram all feeding back to Arup: Buro Happold, Jane Wernick Associates, Expedition, and via Felix Samuely via Anthony Hunt, Atelier 1, Techniker, AKT, and Whitby Bird, and via Whitby Bird my colleagues at Webb Yates, and so it goes on.

  • Ego-less? Ove Arup set up a company that could thrive without him, here at Crossrail, Stepney.
    Ego-less? Ove Arup set up a company that could thrive without him, here at Crossrail, Stepney. · Credit: Robby Whitfield Crossrail Ltd
  • Arup continues to innovate, as seen in SolarLeaf, its_bio-reactive algae facade
    Arup continues to innovate, as seen in SolarLeaf, its_bio-reactive algae facade

However, while Ove Arup’s influence reaches deeply into contemporary engineering, his multidisciplinary philosophy has remained at odds with broader society, until now. In part as a response to the loss of domestic industry, we focussed on our creativity; on our great art, fashion and music – think Tony Blair’s adoption of Cool Britannia. But did this healing impulse inadvertently side-line technical capability? As is characteristic of architects and very few others, my (1990s) A-Levels include Maths and Art accompanied by the notion that I was an odd creature, destined to be scooped up by this precious arts-science crossover world.

Do we still live in that world? MRI brain scans have now shown that the same part of our brains light up for sexy equations as for beautiful paintings and pieces of music. Young hip creatives are tech start-ups. The BBC has a big series called How to Build, celebrating 'Britain’s iconic and secretive engineering companies.' The V&A is hosting an engineering season.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design runs from 18 June – 6 November 2016. 

There will also be supporting displays around the museum including ‘Mind over Matter’, an exhibition in the Architecture Gallery showcasing engineering projects from around the world by British engineering firms including AKT II, Atelier One, Buro Happold, Expedition Engineering and Jane Wernick Associates. There will be an Engineer in Residence, engineering themed Friday Late, a series of lunchtime and evening lectures; talks and gallery tours, as well as a symposium about biomimicry, design and engineering.