On show at the V&A until November is a small but significant retrospective on the work and legacy of Ove Arup (1895–1988), founder the largest company of engineers and architects in the world.
The exhibition features over 150 previously unseen works – including prototypes, works on paper, film and simulations – relating to both his famous projects (ZSL penguin pool, Sydney Opera House, Finsbury Health Centre, etc.) and lesser-known designs, including his controversial design for World War II bomb shelters. Together, they weave a compelling narrative to why Arup is considered one of the most pioneering engineers of the twentieth century. Simultaneously, archival material doodles and company greeting cards bring Arup to life as a warm, funny and inquisitive man.
Interestingly, there is no differentiation between the role of the engineer and architect on the projects displayed; Arup and his architect partners are given equal credit to the design of the buildings. This lack of separation is a welcome decision, and one that will hopefully promote the fact that design is a team effort rather than the creation of the "architect genius".
The exhibition is, however, let down by the execution of its immersive display – which is disappointing because it would otherwise have been so original. The visitor is greeted by an impressive 1:1 scale model of the Centre Pompidou’s exterior beam, on which hosts the first sections of the exhibition. This space, however, smells overwhelmingly of plastic and is most off-putting. Likewise, it is difficult to concentrate on the display on the ground floor due to the noise from various films playing in the background – the decision to include as much as possible has resulted in a lack of focus and sensory overload.
Not mentioned in the exhibition, but would have made an appropriate companion, is Arup’s recent documentary on their founder ‘Ove Arup: The Philosopher Engineer’. This fantastic little film premiered at RIBA in January 2015 and explores Arup’s philosophies on design through interviews with friends, family and colleagues. I have embedded the trailer below and you can watch the full video on Arup's website.
'Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design' is on show at Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 6 November 2016.