Peter Rice: Building to a Human Scale
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Peter Rice was an outstanding designer. Born in Ireland, he studied engineering at Queens University in Belfast and Imperial College in London. In 1956, he joined the internationally renowned consultant engineering practice of Ove Arup Partners in London, where he was to work for more than thirty years on the design of many important projects. During the 1960s he was resident engineer on site at the Sydney Opera House and he went on to collaborate with Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers on the competition-winning design for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was in the realization of this scheme that he introduced the use of cast steel. In the years that followed he was to collaborate with many internationally known architects participating in the design of Lloyds of London with the Sir Richard Rogers Partnership; and numerous projects with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, including the Menil Gallery in Houston, Texas, where he explored the use of ductile iron and ferro-cement. Peter also worked with Sir Michael Hopkins to design the Mound Stand at Lords Cricket Ground in London, and on the designs for new galleries and the Sculpture Courtyards at the Louvre in Paris, with I. M. Pei Architects of New York. Peter Rice died in October, 1992, the same year that he received the Royal Gold Medal. In January, 1995, he was the subject of an exhibition at the Slusser Gallery at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, entitled “Exploring Materials — The Work of Peter Rice.”
On receiving the Royal Gold Medal, Peter Rice drew attention to W. H. Auden’s essay, “Joker in the Pack.” Auden had analyzed the role of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, suggesting that he had destroyed the love of Othello and Desdemona by rational argument; Peter went on to observe that many people tended to attribute that same role to the engineer in the process of architecture and design.
His own work dispelled that view. Inspired by Ove Arup, his colleagues in the office, and the unique way of working which Arup had established there, Peter Rice’s passion for design was fired by an enthusiasm to develop ideas through collaborative effort. This approach was rooted in a view that such collaborations would lead to wide-ranging explorations of design, materials and ways of making which would transform engineering and architecture. Unlike the engineer in Victorian England — who frequently collaborated with client, architect, fabricator, and contractor to experiment with materials and systems of assembly in the design of fundamentally new building types — both architect and engineer today are frequently absorbed in predictable, and often discrete, routines of design which are dominated by corporate industry. For Peter this was repressive and limiting.
As an engineer, he prompted change through his collaborations and the tenacious exploration of materials. His fundamental re- examination of the characteristics of the familiar — stone, glass, and timber — as well as careful studies of the potential of the new lightweight structures, such as polycarbonate and fabric, led to the discovery of new ways of designing and constructing buildings. In commenting on the way present day society lives and builds, Peter argued:
We must use industrial techniques. Components become industrial elements which are used and re-used to create giant facades. Similar buildings multiply over the landscape and the building components dominate the architecture and the growth and power of technology is given the blame. To counteract this architects and designers have returned to the forms and images of old. But to do this misses the point and the problem. What is needed is something which returns the human scale and human involvement to buildings. It is the feeling that people are unimportant when compared to the industrial process which is so damaging. The Victorians succeeded where we do not.
Industry and its power and capacity were new to them. Designers enjoyed the freedom to experiment, to enjoy themselves, to innovate, to explore the possibilities of this new power to manufacture and create. It can be seen in the best of those buildings which survive. Go to the Grand Palais in Paris and one marvels that it is so fine and that we have failed to do as well since. And that is or should be surprising. We have learned so much about steel and glass and how structures work since then. Where has the knowledge gone? Has it become smothered by industry and desire to standardise? I believe so.
In sharp contrast to the standardized and anonymous systems of construction of much modern architecture, Peter Rice and his colleagues worked together to create designs which explored those materials to articulate innovative systems of structure. In their detailed designs, those systems have also been developed to refer to their making and clearly denote what the French would call trace de la main. It was this quality which Peter sought to achieve in the projects he worked on. In discussing the design of Centre Pompidou he observed that:
[i]ts extensive use of cast steel, an early industrial product still much in use today, is an attempt to introduce a material into building construction to change the way building is perceived. It is an example of the use of new materials to change the feeling and scale of a large and monumental building. The piazza facade of this building has nothing to decorate it but structural elements.
By using the castings as the main building joints the shapes and form were liberated from the standard industrial language. The public could see the individual design preference. Modern computers and analysis techniques and modern testing methods made this possible. We were back to the freedom of our Victorian forefathers. The individual details were exploited to give a personal design philosophy full rein. The final design was of course the work of more than one person. Many architects, engineers, and craftsmen at the foundry contributed to the actual shape of each piece. And each piece was subject to the rigours of detailed structural analysis to ensure that it was fit for its purpose in every way and this too influenced the shape and final configuration. But this does not matter. The pieces are indeed better for all the different expertise which went into their make-up. They are more logical, more self-evidently correct in their form. What matters is that they are free of the industrial tyranny. They require people to look and perceive so that they may understand. This brings to mind another myth about technology. The feeling that technological choice is always the result of a predetermined logic. The feeling that there is a correct solution to a technical question is very common. But a technical solution like any other decision is a moment in time. It is not definitive. The decision is the result of a complex process where a lot of information is analysed and examined and choices made on the evidence. It is a moment in time and place where the people, their background and their talent is paramount. What is often missing is the evidence of human intervention, the black box syndrome. So by looking at new materials, or at old materials in a new way we change the rules. People become visible again.
In all of his work Peter Rice emphasized the role of the engineer as explorer, inventor and colleague. His tenacity, inspiration, and ingenuity revealed fresh ideas in familiar territories and opened up new worlds in architecture.
It is in this context — in particular that of his willing and enthusiastic collaboration not only with architects and builders but with artists like Frank Stella or scientists such as Fritz Vollrath — that the exhibition was so appropriately shown in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, which is itself a focus for the development of multi-disciplinary design and new ways of working. Following their close collaboration over many years, the famous Italian architect, Renzo Piano, commented that: “Peter Rice made a great contribution to anchor the art of architecture to real life, real science, and real modernity.”
The exhibition, “Exploring Materials — The Work of Peter Rice” celebrated that contribution. First exhibited at the Gallery of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, it was designed to celebrate the award of the Royal Gold Medal to Peter Rice in 1992. Subsequently, it was shown in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin and in Peter’s home town of Dundalk; it was also the first exhibition of the work of an engineer to be shown at the Gulbenkian Galleries in Lisbon.
In North America it has been exhibited at the Architecture League in New York and at Princeton, prior to being shown at the University of Michigan by the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, with the support of the College of Engineering and the International Institute. It is now in Canada and will go on to Los Angeles.
Brian Carter is an architect and chair of the Architecture Program at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Before joining the College, he worked as an architect for Arup Associates in London, and taught at a number of universities in the U.S. and Europe. Quotations used in this article are from the catalog to the exhibition, Exploring Materials — The Work of Peter Rice (1992), shown January 1995 at the University of Michigan.