Monday, April 15, 2013

Traces of Peter Rice edited by Kevin Barry

Rices's Pyramid Inversee
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 April:

Peter Rice can hardly be described as a prophet without honour in his own country, after all he was made an Honorary Fellow by the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. However, despite an international reputation as one of the most distinguished structural engineers of the 20th Century, he's relatively unknown here.  He has left his mark on a number of the world's most architecturally significant buildings including the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.  His particular genius was for marrying his formidable analytical skills to a highly-developed aesthetic sensibility.  He was only the second engineer ever to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects (the first was Ove Arup).

Rice was born in Dundalk in 1935 and studied engineering at Queen's University, Belfast,  an unusual move for a southern Catholic at that time.  Although it probably made sense to go to a city still clinging to an engineering tradition that was lacking in Dublin.  After a post-graduate stint at Imperial College, Rice joined Arup in London and thereafter his talents were mainly used abroad, especially France and the UK but also as far afield as Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the Menil Collection museum in Houston, USA, and, significantly for him, Australia.  For an example of his virtuosity take a look at the Pyramide Inversée du Louvre (illustrated).

A seminal moment in the life of Peter Rice was his encounter with Jørn Utzon, the legendary architect of the Sydney Opera House.  The Opera House was Rice's first major project.  He worked on it for seven years including three years as engineer on site for Arup.  When walking around the site with the resident building team Utzon spoke of his vision of colour, light, and texture in a way that made an indelible impression on the young engineer. The encounter encouraged him to get involved creatively in subsequent projects. He discovered the nascent designer within the engineer and put this discovery to good use in a series of signature projects around the world.

His next major building was the controversial Pompidou Centre.  The architect Richard Rogers with whom he worked on the project subsequently described him as "an artist, a poet, a sculptor engineer, a Brunelleschi of recent times".  The key to the design of the Centre was  carrying the weight of the floors to the outside of the building - allowing large areas of unencumbered floor space inside.  This was achieved by Rice coming up with the idea of cast-steel gerberettes, or cantilivered beams, each of which weighed almost 10 tons.  Apart from doing their technical job these devices played a substantial aesthetic role in the finished building.  His brilliant decision to use cast steel was a  harkening back to the exuberance of Victorian engineering.  After the Pompidou success he founded his own company Rice, Francis & Richie (RFR) to pursue further work in France while still continuing his association with Arup.

The the 11 essays and 7 cameos (shorter pieces) are written by an international cast of colleagues, scholars, family and friends.  They form a compelling and multi-faceted portrait of a brilliant and attractive man.  As befits its subject matter it's a beautifully designed book with plentiful illustrations.  Its replete with illuminating anecdotes. The Italian architect Renzo Piano recounts a dinner in Houston where he mentioned a curious ferro-cement boat he'd seen.   Rice immediately saw how this material could be used to solve an intractable roof problem for the Menil Collection museum.  One of the most interesting pieces, by architect Sean O' Laoire, embraces Joyce, Kavanagh and the Roman architect Vitruvius.  He saw Rice following Vitruvian principles where Firmness and Commodity were the servants of Delight.  O'Laoire shows Rice's influence in this country in the collaboration between RFR and Michael Collins Associates in the restoration of Stack A at the Custom House Quay.  RFR also collaborated in the design of county halls in Limerick, Mullingar and Fingal.  Traces of Rice are all around us.

Thanks to the example of Rice and his like-minded colleagues, architecture and engineering practice in this country have come a long way from the days when our Department of Health (the irony) found acceptable the monstrous, looming, ugliness that is Hawkins House.  Our architects are winning prestigious commissions abroad such as the London School of Economics (O'Donnell + Tuomey) and the University of Toulouse (Grafton Architects).  Grafton also picked up the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale for Architecture 2012.  At home building such as the Aviva Stadium, the Samuel Beckett bridge and the Bord Gais theatre confirm a growing demand that we should marry the functional and the aesthetic.

Rice was diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumour in 1991 and given only  a year to live.  He immediately set to work on writing a memoir and a summary of his engineering philosophy.  The result was Imagining Engineering, a passionate espousal of his beliefs.  A well-read man, he was aware of Auden's claim that Iago, the villain in Othello, was the prototype of the Scientific Man.  He was determined to escape that slur by ensuring that every project on which he worked brought delight to the beholder.  One of his final achievements was a low budget engagement with the Full Moon Theatre in the Languedoc.  This was  a labour of love where he married high tech and low tech to stunning effect in the development of a lighting system that used lunar power.

These essays, edited by Kevin Barry, Professor Emeritus, NUI, Galway, introduces a fascinating creative genius who could truly be said to have added to the gaiety of nations.  And it's not a dry technical tome.  Those who can't tell a gerbil from a gerberette can still enjoy the story of a remarkable Irishman.

Traces of Peter Rice
Ed. Kevin Barry
pp 135
eBook Version available