The new V&A show on the work of legendary engineer Ove Arup may appear fairly modest at first glance, occupying a single room at the Porter Gallery – yet spanning two levels in a clever design by Dyvik Kahlen Architects, it really packs a punch. The exhibition, titled 'Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design' and opening to the public this weekend, is part of the London museum’s ongoing Engineering Season and aims to celebrate the oft-unsung heroes of building design: engineers. And for this, Arup’s work is a perfect case study.
The show, curated by the V&A’s Maria Nicanor and Zofia Trafas White, is a fascinating exploration of the 20th century engineer’s life and work, and how it has influenced today’s practices in his field. Arup, fittingly argue the curators, was a true pioneer, championing real collaboration with architects, using a computer for the first time during the Sydney Opera House project in the 1960s – a hefty but fascinating machine called 'Pegasus', on display at the show – and spanning multiple applications of Arup’s creative approach using all kinds of materials – concrete, metal or wood.
Taking a chronological journey, the curators also aimed to tackle any misconceptions of what being an engineer means. Arup’s myriad hand drawings, sketches and clever manifestos, his sense of humour and his multidisciplinary background – the British-born Dane studied philosophy and mathematics before moving on to his degree in engineering – testify to that.
Displays take the visitor through early works, such as the London Zoo’s Penguin Pool – Arup’s landmark breakthrough project with architect Berthold Lubetkin – and his significant contribution during World War II – his fenders for Mulberry Harbour were a crucial element towards the Allied invasion of Normandy’s success. Exhibits also touch upon key later projects, realised prior to Arup’s passing – such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Menil Collection. Kingsgate Bridge is one of the very last projects the engineering master was involved in. His ashes were scattered from it in 1988.
Of course, Arup’s legacy lives on, through his ongoing world famous engineering firm, which now counts thousands of employees around the globe, spanning not only civil engineering but also lighting and acoustics – an international and truly multidisciplinary approach firmly set from the very beginning by its founder.
Contemporary and ongoing work by the office offers a fitting ending to the show, hinting towards the future; facades using algae? Auralisation tools that help you understand how architecture affects sound? You name it – Arup is probably working on it.