4 APRIL 1992, Page 46


The Art of the Structural Engineer (The Building Centre, till 14 April) The Architect and the Carpenter (RIBA Heinz Gallery, till 2 May)

Holding it up

Alan Powers

Structural engineers have always given the impression of being the strong, silent men on the building team. More recently, they have become stronger and less silent, particularly in respect of the more glam- orous, high-tech buildings 'designed' by architects who have become household names. It is something of a shock to find the name of the individual engineer credit- ed above that of the architect in the dis- plays in The Art of the Structural Engineer, an exhibition at the Building Centre (26 Store Street, WC1). The Sacfrler Galleries by Albert Taylor and Stanstead Airport by Martin Manning are meant to sound odd, for the exhibition tackles the issue of who actually designs the building. It comes in succession to exhibitions about tension structures and services engineering grouped as 'The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture'. It coin- cides too not only with the passing of the new Copyright Designs and Patents Bill, which ensures a moral right for structural engineers and architects in the buildings they have helped to design, but also with the announcement that the RIBA gold medal for 1992 will be awarded to an engi- neer: Peter Rice, of Ove Arup Partnership — the man who made Sydney Opera House stand up.

That this question of authorship should become contentious and virtually insoluble

was to be expected from the philosophy of modern architecture, which directed atten- tion away from the conventional aesthetics of architecture towards the visual excite- ment and economic desirability of struc- tures conceived as engineering, and even indicated that great social benefits were to be found therein. In England in the 1930s, the engineer Sir Owen Williams was rightly admired for his adventurous concrete structures. He proved capable of designing buildings of some complexity, like the Pio- neer Health Centre in Peckham, more cheaply and attractively than the architects originally selected for the job. Later, the long-lived Danish-born engineer Sir Ove Arup came to symbolise a superior wisdom against which architects could only feel inadequate in their skills. Arup started an architectural wing within his practice, and other large firms have taken this path of offering a complete range of building ser- vices, but the more common method is to form a team of architect and engineer for each project, and some ten engineering practices are represented in this over- wordy but worthwhile exhibition.

The work ranges from obviously engineering-based structures like Stanstead Airport to a tree house (consulting engi- neer Price and Myers). For reasons of lia- bility, architects are discouraged from doing their own engineering calculations for even the smallest buildings. Conflicts can arise, but the stars of the engineering profession think like architects and share the same goals. They often seem to do very well without help from those fashionable stylists who have trained for seven years, and tend to treat them in a manner which is simultaneously chippy and patronising. Structural engineering is one more way in which the traditional province of the archi-

tect has been invaded by other specialists, casting doubt on the validity of architecture as a separate discipline. With a new profes- sion of contract manager, the architect too easily becomes the man who charms the client, organises the PR, collects his per- centage from the contract price and tries to shift the blame if things go wrong. It is not an enviable position, and one can only sug- gest that architects do well to revive more of the skills which the modern movement persuaded them to abandon as worthless.

Before the rise of the engineer in the 19th century, the same role was filled by the carpenter. The Architect and the Car- penter at the RIBA Heinz Gallery (21 Port- man Square, W1), with a comprehensive catalogue by Dr David Yeomans, gives some valuable insights into the period from the 17th to the early 19th centuries when timber was mainly used as an unseen means of holding up flat ceilings, domes and other classical forms. It was a period when carpentry virtually ceased to develop in ingenuity and became visually uninter- esting compared to the outer shell of the building. Even the architects of the Gothic Revival strapped up their timbers with iron, and the revival in the use of timber during the Arts and Crafts period (includ- ing such aesthetic no-nos as Liberty's) is unfortunately hardly explored. Even less attention is given to the use of laminated timber in the post-war period, producing such exciting structures as Oxford Road Station, Manchester (a wooden Sydney Opera House), or to the cross-over with advanced engineering seen in the Richard Burton/Frei OttoITed Happold study cen- tre at Hooke Park College which uses thin- flings of Norway spruce holding up a polymer fabric roof in a convincing exposi- tion of Green high-tech.

The workshop at Hooke Park College, Dorset, with a roof of PVC over forest thinnings