How British engineers built the modern world

Senior reporter

A new TV show and exhibition gives some long overdue recognition to the importance of engineering to contemporary architecture.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.