Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design

The robot was a bit sinister. But otherwise it was amazing. It was obviously inspired by nature, because it looked like it was designed by a honeybee and built by a spider. So you would expect a natural design to look traditional, old, primeval but actually it looked futuristic. Or maybe not futuristic, maybe gothic, like a Tim Burton filmset. I couldn’t decide. I also have no idea how it didn’t just collapse in on itself! If you understand it how it works, please share in the comments, I’m sure we’d all like to know.

But as the sun set lowered behind the red brick of the V&A, I turned my back on the new pavilion and headed back inside, for the main course – a new exhibition about engineering.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is a chance to learn about a very famous engineer; about him as a person, some of the things he did and also what his business has gone on to do. It’s also a great opportunity to learn about engineering in a way that’s personal and easy to understand.

The exhibition is laid out to encourage a set path, first around a mezzanine walkway past large suspended models then down into a large room with more models, drawings, videos, tablets to interact with, audio recordings and a soundlab to experience.

We’re introduced to Ove Arup by his humour, his early Christmas cards, his nonsense verse, the face that he called their first computer Mumbo Jumbo. We also learn about his early projects, the penguin house at London zoo, an ingenious design to help the war effort and a hospital design that was more pleasant for patients.

Then there’s the familiar form of the Sydney Opera House, which his firm designed. I enjoyed seeing the original architectural design for the first time; but it was little more than a charcoal scribble on an A3 sheet of paper. So the engineers did some great work to realise it, which is explained with some different models and videos. The site photos alone will stick in my memory for a long time, and made a big impression on my wife.

There’s also the Pompidou Centre, the Menil Collection, St Pancras International and a feature on Wikihouse rounded off with the Soundlab. I’d been encouraged by a colleague to check this last bit out, and it was very good. We sat for 10 minutes to see (actually it was mostly about listening) to the different sound environments, which was fun to compare mono and stereo, or suddenly feel like you’re in a theatre listening to an orchestra.

The exhibition then is a good introduction to engineering. It’s quite light-hearted, there are good explanations to go with models and parts of it are quite inspiring. For purveyors of the art, there are things to learn from as well. Seeing other people’s sketches is always instructive and one of my highlights was seeing an ingenious design to protect the D-day flotilla from ships crashing into it.

All in all, I think the V&A has done well at presenting a job that is endlessly fascinating in a way that is immediately accessible. I hope you get to see it and enjoy it too.

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