This exhibition at the V&A is a victim of its own ambition, says John Jervis, displaying a wealth of impressive material, but with explanations that fail to provide illumination for experts and lay audiences alike
How do you solve a problem like the architectural exhibition? Usually with a blast of alluring black-and-white photos; some fixtures, fittings, models and plans; and an enjoyable but tenuous collection of contemporary art and design. The results can be interesting and informative – impressive even – but, bereft of the actual buildings, often end up having an antiquarian air.
So, with only one large room at its disposal, how does the V&A approach an even greater challenge: exhibiting the complex science of engineering, and more specifically, the career and philosophy of Ove Arup and an ongoing account of Arup, ‘the world’s largest engineering consultancy’?
Many of the most photogenic buildings of the 20th century are up for grabs – the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre, the Menil Collection, the HSBC Building et al – yet glossy photography is spurned, along with art and design. Instead we get the byproducts of the engineering process: drawings, elevations, sections, wind-tunnel models, test components, a splendid 1950s supercomputer, printouts, handwritten calculations, pressure distribution diagrams and 12 towering Perspex boxes of ageing files, just to ram home the point.
Does this approach work? The start miscues. After walking past a wall of computer printouts, intended as a decorative taster, we are confronted by a dispensable display of Arup’s doodles and doggerel. Hopefully friends and family will enjoy those. Then we get to his early career, where huge excisions are made: no Highpoint, no Canvey, no Spa Green, no Coventry. And the material on the Penguin Pool and Finsbury Health Centre is cursory, with explanations of Arup’s role uninformative for amateur and professional alike – apparently ‘an exceptionally complex set of mathematical calculations’ was required for the slim concrete ramps of the former.
This section should have been key to revealing Arup’s role in pioneering closer collaboration between architects and engineers, and the revolutionary modernism this enabled, but the opportunity is spurned. Instead, the show finally gets going with the post-war projects, each of which could justify an exhibition to itself. With such limited space, there’s something deeply noble about the decision to concentrate on the serious exhibits to explain the role of engineering in each building’s success – perhaps this is how an exhibition on the 20th-century’s greatest practitioner should be, cutting off the fat to impress us with substance.
Yet the result is a bit dull, and worse, frustratingly unrevealing. There’s a strange contrast between the complex exhibits and the bland captions and wall panels, which lack substantive explanation, but continually insist on the engineering breakthroughs that allowed buildings to be constructed, often defining their final appearance. Similarly, we never really get any real grit as to the details of Arup’s ‘radical philosophy’, just generalisations written in the language of the GCSE handout – perhaps further illumination is just not possible for a general audience.
There is certainly nostalgic interest to be had – typography on plans, sleek metal cladding and dials on vintage computers, high-waisted trousers in photographs, received pronunciation on videos – and architectural glories too, thanks to occasional photographs of the finished structures. Yet the latter are few, and there’s a similar reluctance to display photography of potent engineering elements in situ: the pre-stressed rib vaults at Sydney or the massive bracing connections at the Pompidou Centre, perhaps.
Occasional exhibits cut through. Construction images of the Sydney Opera House and the HSBC Building, the latter with cranes embedded in its masts, all towering above Victoria Harbour. A model of the spherical roof geometry that provided the shape for the Sydney Opera House’s roofs – a Jørn Utzon discovery, according to other sources, which also reveal the growing animosity between architect and engineer that goes unmentioned here. An early video explaining the gerberette system at the Pompidou, with a mammoth lifesize example in foam hovering above.
Perhaps the most affecting, and effective, display, however, deals with a humbler project: a bridge over the River Weir at Kingsgate in Durham. The scale makes the elegant achievement comprehensible, while Arup’s personal involvement on his last project finally delivers some understanding of the philosophy of total design, right down to the sculptural bronze expansion joint joining the two halves of the bridge together. Yet, as we come up to date at the end with algae-filled facades, interactive WikiHouses and touchscreens offering factlets about Crossrail and HS1, I feel increasingly like a sulky teenager undergoing edutainment on a school trip.
I’m a huge supporter of exhibitions: a printed monograph reaches a few hundred, a major exhibition reaches tens of thousands. Sadly, with architecture topics, the exhibition often struggles to convey the experience of the building, though it can provide context and understanding. In the case of engineering, it seems difficult to achieve even these aims – the balance of accessibility and explanation is just too hard when there are multiple audiences. And, in this particular instance, the subject was probably too ambitious to leave room for the context that would have justified the rhetoric of revolution, philosophy and invention. It turns out a catalogue would have been a superior approach. But do visit anyway. It’s a sincere endeavour, it’s relatively affordable, there are 150 previously unseen exhibits – many of which may not see the light of day in our lifetime – and it’s worth it just to bask in the spendour of these buildings once more.
Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design