Monday, May 15, 2017


Peter Rice is a name and a reputation known well throughout the architectural world. His work is legendary. So it is that a brief reminder of his life and work is all that is required by way of introduction. Wikipedia presents it most succinctly:

Rice (left) with Piano (standing centre)

Peter Rice (16 June 1935–25 October 1992) was an Irish structural engineer. Born in Dublin, he grew up in 52 Castle Road, Dundalk, in County Louth, and spent his childhood between the town of Dundalk, and the villages of Gyles’ Quay and Inniskeen. He was educated at the Queen’s University of Belfast where he received his primary degree, and spent a year at Imperial College, London. Rice acted as Structural Engineer on three of the most important architectural works of the 20th century: the Sydney Opera House (with Ove Arup), Pompidou Centre, and the Lloyd’s Building and was renowned for his innate ability to act as both engineer and designer.

He originally studied Aeronautical Engineering but switched to Civil Engineering. Taken on by Ove Arup & Partners, his first job was the roof of the Sydney Opera House. He married Sylvia Watson in 1965 and they had one son and three daughters. Jonathan Glancey in his obituary said "Rice was, perhaps, the James Joyce of structural engineering. His poetic invention, his ability to turn accepted ideas on their head and his rigorous mathematical and philosophical logic made him one of the most sought-after engineers of our times".

He believed the best buildings result from the symbiotic relationship between the architect and the engineer where the engineer is the objective inventor and the architect the creative input. He found the Anglo Saxon understanding of the work of an engineer restrictive and preferred the French and Italian interpretation of the role.

Among the notable buildings on whose design he worked are the Centre Pompidou, the Sydney Opera House, Lloyd’s of London, the Louvre Pyramid, the Mound Stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground, Kansai International Airport and Stansted Airport.

In 1992 he was the second engineer to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects, (the first was Ove Arup), and the second Irishman after Michael Scott. The award is conferred by the Sovereign annually for work which has "promoted, either directly or indirectly, the advancement of architecture."

He was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1991 and died the following year aged 57. A sign has been put up outside his childhood home, 52 Castle Road, Dundalk, County Louth, saying "Birthplace of Peter Rice, Engineer, 1935 – 1992". The plaque was erected privately by the (then) Dundalk Town Architect, Mr Paul Clancy.

No further detail, analysis, comment, or review is required. One can recommend his autobiography: Peter Rice, An Engineer Imagines, Artemis, London, Zurich, Munich, 1994. Peter Rice tells his story with the same love and care that he gave to everything. A few notes were taken during the read because of their importance. These clarify his ideas precisely, and need to be considered and reconsidered by all. They require no further remarks, being subtle, sensitive, and to the point. One can understand how this engineer can be so admired by architects.

p. 26 Often it is the expressiveness of the jointing which humanizes the structures and gives them their friendly feel.
p. 27 We argued that in a design like ours, (Beaubourg), it was all in the detailing.
p. 30 The scale of the Centre Beaubourg would be the scale of the pieces rather than the scale of the whole.
p. 44 . . . we were shouting across an impenetrable wall, with each of us drawing the conclusions we wanted from the discussion.
p. 67 . . . the remoteness and detachment of age, the distillation of wisdom and purpose which old people embody.
p. 77 A building does not have to be made of brick or stone to achieve this (tactile feeling), but rather it is the honesty and immediacy in the use of its principal materials which determines its tactile quality.
p. 78 . . . I believe that the primary quality that makes the built environment tactile is evidence that people have participated in its construction.
The search for the authentic character of a material is at the heart of any approach to engineering design. . . . one should not invent and innovate just for its own sake. Innovation should have a real purpose and be contributing to the project. . . . I do not believe that economy and innovation are necessarily incompatible.
p. 85 Every bolt, every joint counts.
p. 154 . . . we invariably think too big today.
p. 127 - 132. The Critic and the Photograph - (note: a very perceptive overview)
p. 129 At all levels therefore the photograph has had a detrimental effect on the development of architecture and its appreciation by the public. The photograph is such a ubiquitous element of modern life that many people presented with something, particularly something of a certain size, instinctively compose the photograph in their minds rather than examine its reality.

Renzo Piano & Peter Rice circa 1982
A Postscript is required:
There is a problem with a photograph in this publication. The photograph, Riding the tube at Lyon, in the collection of images on the strangely un-numbered pages at the very end of the book, reproduces the image sideways! The publisher's note on the last page records that the book was 'prepared for publication after Peter Rice's death.' This little piece of carelessness is a sad disappointment, because Peter Rice was always careful with the details. The book could have been titled All About Details.

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