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How British engineers built the modern world

The stark contrast between the public estimation of architects and engineers in Britain is a reminder of the widespread lack of understanding of what engineers do.

An architect is typically seen as a highly educated and skilled professional making great contributions to civilisation through their mixture of creativity, flair for design and technical understanding. An engineer, if not thought to be boiler fixer, is relegated to the position of someone who makes other people’s great ideas happen.

But from the second half of the twentieth century, the line between the two professions was blurred somewhat by architectural movements that saw a building’s form follow its function and where design was guided and advanced by the adoption of new construction materials and techniques.

The “high-tech” or “industrial” style began as a radical and sometimes controversial way of thinking about buildings but has become one of the world’s dominant architectural approaches to creating public and commercial buildings.


Source: 30 St Mary Axe

The Lloyds Building (far left) and Gherkin (far right) in London are both examples of high-tech architecture.

Characterised by a prominent exposure of a building’s structural and functional components and the use of pre-fabricated elements such as steel frames, glass panels and supporting cables, the high-tech style can be seen in buildings from the Gherkin in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to the Burj al-Arab in Dubai and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong.

The movement is now being reassessed by a new exhibition and TV show (the first episode of which was broadcast last night), which not only highlight the role of British architects in creating and spreading the high-tech style, but also pay some long overdue recognition to the crucial role of engineering in its formation and practice.

The architects covered by The Brits Who Built The Modern World, who include Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw, were both inspired by engineers and the technology they produced and often worked with them from the very beginnings of a project.1


Source: Martin Charles / RIBA

The Centre Pompidou in Paris was highly controversial when it opened in 1977 but is now a much-loved part of the city.

‘None of [the key features of high-tech architecture] come about except by close collaboration between engineers and architects right from inception,’ says Tristram Carfrae, chair of Arup’s global buildings practice and a structural engineer who has worked on many high-tech buildings including the Lloyds building in London, the HSBC building in Hong Kong and the National Aquatic Centre in Beijing. 

‘This is about architects and engineers sitting down and talking to each other about what are our potential ambitions working together, what are the opportunities and how can we approach this project before anyone gets a pen out and starts drawing anything. It comes from a philosophical position not an aesthetic position.’ 

In practice, this often means designing the shape of a building or building element to follow the limitations of a particular material or engineering principle. For example, the Schlumberger Cambridge Research building designed by Michael and Patricia Hopkins comprises a Teflon-coated glass-fibre membrane suspended from a steel superstructure – essentially a giant tent.


Source: Schlumberger

A giant tent - The Schlumberger Cambridge Research building demonstrates how form follows function in high-tech architecture.

‘The fabric has to be doubly curved and has to have radius curvature of over 20m to withstand the loads that are going to be applied to it, therefore, the possible selection of forms is limited,’ says Carfrae, who worked on the project. ‘An architect can’t just sketch a form and say: “I want that”. And neither does the engineer say: “Here’s a form that works”. It’s normally an interaction between the two that comes up with something that is architecturally satisfactory and structurally sensible.’ 

Though high-tech buildings can be seen in cities and towns across North America, Europe and Asia, this crucially close collaboration between engineers and architects still isn’t necessarily normal practice. And Carfrae points out that there has been a move back towards the importance of creative forms, aided by the development of software tools that have given architects the freedom to design shapes they would never otherwise be able to realise.

The TV show and exhibition’s gives welcome recognition of the importance of engineers to the high-tech style: Carfrae recalls a similar exhibition in the 1990s that made no such mention. But the references really only give a hint as to what contribution engineers make to the built environment. Perhaps a true list of Brits Who Built The Modern World might include Ove Arup, Ted Happold and Felix Samuely.


The Hong Kong skyline is littered with high-tech buildings, including the HSBC Building, a model of which is also on display at the RIBA exhibition.

But, says Carfrae, there’s also a new possibility to use computers to design exquisite spaces that draw on cultural roots and make use of technical solutions that’s only just starting to be explored. And with greater emphasis on sustainability, greater use of IT within buildings and greater awareness of how structures function within an entire city system, engineers’ role in architecture looks set only to increase.

The exhibition, The Brits Who Built The Modern World, can be seen at the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. The accompanying TV series can be seen on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC4. The first episode can be seen on iPlayer.

Readers' comments (13)

  • Before anyone objects, I am well aware that Felix Samuely was Austrian but he emigrated to the UK in 1933 and, like many European Jews fleeing the Nazis, became a key figure in British society for the rest of his life.

    Similarly, Ove Arup had a Scandinavian education and parents but he was born in Newcastle and spent most of his working life in Britain.

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  • I often have to remind a 'Building Control Officer' friend of mine that if it wasn't for engineers all he would have to inspect would be 'mud huts'!

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  • Difference between Engineers and Architects -according to one of my colleagues at Exeter University congratulating a Civil Engineering student (to whom he had taught 'structures') when he gained his first post with an architect's practice.

    "You will need to buy a flamboyant bow-tie and silk handkerchief to wear in the office! All architects do!"
    Mike B

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  • Angular metal-frame glasses and a black polo-neck are also required.

  • Maybe if the title of "Engineer" was protected (as I believe Architect is) people would hold us in higher regard and have a better understanding of what an Engineer does.

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  • Please remember that the term "architect" is allegedly derived from "technician of arches" or "arch-technician". As arches have been built for thousands of years using empirical results one can safely assume that the building an arch is not rocket science. In spite of this the term "Architect" now carries a great deal of kudos. Why?

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  • Re Davey, above:
    Why does "Architect" carry more kudos than "Engineer"?

    Because Architects do not bore for Britain on the subject of "Status", they get on the the bloody job instead and then (draws breath....) tell people about it and blow their own trumpets. In addition, they come from the "arts" side rather than the "sciences" (quotation marks to indicate that this is popular perception, not necessarily reality). Britain split arts and sciences some time ago, the French and Germans did not. "Arts" are creative "Sciences" (in popular perception) are not.

    Do not protect the title of Engineer, doing so is weak and insecure. Get on with the job, stop whingeing and start to sing about your creative achievements with the emphasis on "creative". The problem (if there really is one) will then fix itself.

    For the record, my father (now retired) was a reasonably high profile Architect in Oxford. I am an Engineer. We are both proud of our respective chosen professions and understand both the differences and similarities.

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  • @Mike B. I do remember having to explain to an experienced civil engineer how the correct strut formula is selected dependant on the value of the struts slenderness ratio, and me just a humble 1970s HNC engineer.
    @Anthony Nash. Is it OK for me to refer to myself as an engineer; time served in the MOD, experience in special techniques in the AEA, senior design and project engineering posts in the manufacture of scientific instruments?
    When I started my apprenticeship in the 1960s you could become a chartered engineer with just an HNC!

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  • Old joke but worth re-telling:
    Difference between Architects and Engineers?
    Engineers build weapons, Architects build targets.

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  • Architects design buildings to look pretty, Engineers design them to work.

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  • Conversation between an architect (my son's housemate), a civil engineer (my son) and a mechanical engineer (myself) in Sydney harbour.
    Architect - if it wasn't for architects that opera house would not be there.
    Civil Engineer - if it was not for civil engineers, that harbour bridge would not be there.
    Mechanical engineer - if it wasn't for those planes up there designed by Mech engineers, you would not be here to see the opera house and bridge.

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