Best known as the founder of Arup Group Limited and the mastermind of the Sydney Opera House, Sir Ove Nyquist Arup was a pioneering engineer. Arup’s designs were revolutionary and he is considered as one of the greatest master builders of the 20th century. Arup had a very principled design philosophy. He believed an “architect should be part engineer and the engineer should be part architect in order to achieve a fruitful collaboration.” Arup’s impact is still being felt today and the company that bears his name continues to thrive.
Arup was born in Newcastle in 1895 to Scandinavian parents. His Danish father was a veterinary surgeon but lost his job in England due to a ban on live cattle imports. The Arup family, consisting of young Ove and his three half-siblings, moved to Hamburg, Germany. After spending his early education in Germany, Arup relocated to Denmark where he achieved his engineering degree in 1922 at the Technical University of Denmark, specialising in reinforced concrete.
The boundaries between architecture and engineering were flexible in Arup’s hands. He was a firm believer in ‘total design’ – the idea that every project from beginning to end called for a strong working relationship between engineer and architect. Arup worked in both roles in his first completed project, the modernist international style Labworth Café (1932-33), in Essex. The café overlooks the Thames Estuary at Labworth beach on Canvey Island.
Throughout the 1930s, Arup collaborated with many modernist architects, such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, and architectural practices including the Tecton Group. Arup worked with the Tecton Group on their first and second projects, the Gorilla House and Penguin Pool in the London Zoo. Both of these buildings were completed in 1934, bringing Ove Arup and co-founder of the Tecton Group, Berthold Lubetkin, to prominence. For the Penguin Pool, Arup and his assistant created the interlocking, spiralling ramps, which were constructed from thin reinforced concrete. The two buildings are monuments of British modernist architecture. Arup also collaborated with Lubetkin on the Highpoint I, a residential design in London, built in 1935. The Highpoint I structure consists of two apartment blocks connected together and it became one of the best examples of the early international style. It was critically acclaimed and Le Corbusier himself remarked, “The building at Highgate is an achievement of the first rank.”
These collaborations were a definitive phase in Arup’s career, as they shaped his views on how buildings should be constructed. When he established his own firm in 1938, he enforced his ‘total design’ vision to overcome what he saw as a separation between engineering, architecture and building. Arup wanted creative collaboration at every stage of the design process. This wasn’t quite the case with John Utzon’s concept for the Sydney Opera House, built in 1973. Utzon designed the structure, initially, without any engineering consultation.
It took six years for Arup and his team of engineers to resolve how the building’s contoured roof could be built. The turning point came when the team discovered the infamous ‘spherical solution’ in the mid-1960s. The engineers realised they could use spherical geometry to build the shells of the roof. In doing so, Arup used computers to solve complex structural problems. The Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece and one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century.
The Centre Georges Pompidou is another one of Arup’s most famous large-scale achievements. It is a complex building in Paris, which houses a vast public library and hosts many exhibitions. The structure was designed by the architectural team of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. It has been used in many French films and also appeared in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker. When the structure was built in 1977, Arup had retired from active practice, but the Arup Group led the engineering and created the main structure.
Until his death in 1988, Arup was one of the most prolific engineers of his time. He has left behind an awe-inspiring legacy and a firm numbering over 13,000 employees. Ove’s Total Design principle is an idea that Arup Group still upholds today. Arup demonstrated the power of creative thinking combined with technical expertise. He revolutionised the way engineers and architects worked together, which has proved instrumental for the designs and structures of the 21st century.
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