Ove Arup ‘ Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century

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It is likely that many Australian readers of this, the first biography of Ove Arup, will be tempted to turn straight to the chapters on the Sydney Opera House. But be warned ‘ this is an account of the building written unapologetically from the Arup camp, and Utzon doesn’t fare well.

To do the book, and Ove’s story, justice it is far better to start at the beginning. Born in England in 1895 to a Danish father and a Norwegian mother, Ove’s life spanned most of the 20th century. Indeed his career was defined and propelled by many of the major design, technological and economic developments of the century: early experimentation with thin-shelled reinforced concrete structures, the emergence of the modernist agenda through, for example, Gropius and Le Corbusier – both of whom Ove knew ‘ and more recently the phenomenon of corporate globalisation of which the present-day Arup engineering consultancy is a highly successful example.

Initially a somewhat reluctant engineer ‘ his first degree was in philosophy ‘ Ove came to engineering through architecture and the potential it offered in the interwar years to unite art and technology. In fact Ove never lost his philosopher’s need to investigate and understand and it is this humanist perspective that drove his lifelong quest for ‘total design’, the integration of architectural and engineering skills.

Ove himself seems to have happily combined the qualities of both professions, writing in the 1980s: ‘There is such a lot of humbug in architects, but there is such a lot of stodginess in engineers. I am almost in favour of humbug, temperamentally.’ In fact Ove was far from ‘stodgy’, driving his long-suffering secretary Ruth Winawer to distraction with his often chaotic management style, his appalling driving and his penchant for a good lunch. Peter Jones, an eminent philosophy historian in his own right, has achieved a comfortable balance between Ove the man and Ove the engineer, drawing on an extensive archive of personal papers, company records, articles, lectures, correspondence and photos.

Since its formation in London in 1946, Arup has been associated with many renowned structural projects, but it is undoubtedly the Sydney Opera House that secured the global reputation of the company. For Ove personally it offered the supreme opportunity for the integration of artistic vision and technical innovation. Ironic then that the building engendered one of the most fraught breakdowns between architect and engineer in modern architectural history. Sadly the treatment meted out to Utzon over two chapters in this otherwise laudable biography will do little to aid the healing process.

This review was first published in Architecture Australia, Jan/Feb 07.

Ove Arup ‘ Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century is published by Yale University Press
Arup and Partners
Building a masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House