Sir Ove Arup by Godfrey Argent, 25 April 1969 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, until 6 November 2016.

August 2016

From the Sydney Opera House to the Centre Pompidou, Danish-British engineer Ove Arup (1895-1988) worked on some of the architectural icons of the 20th century. Through his philosophy of Total Design, he pioneered a multidisciplinary approach about architects, designers and engineers collaborating. This exhibition, which is part of the V&A's 'engineering season', chronicles his five-decade-long career, which began at the height of the Modernist movement, through over 150 prototypes, models, archival materials, drawings, film and photography.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, northern England, Arup studied philosophy as well as mathematics and engineering, and this training shaped the broad scope of his revolutionary outlook. After moving to London in 1923 he met Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier – a lithograph portrait of Arup by Le Corbusier is on display and so is a letter by Gropius who shared Arup's team-spirited vision. In his letter, he wrote, “I myself find it very difficult to interpret the differences between architects and engineers regarding the creative, inventive qualities involved in their contributions, particularly as I see – as you do – the conceptual process as a total entity, form, structure and economy being inseparable within it.”

One of Arup's early projects in the 1930s was the Penguin Pool at London Zoo with the crisp design of two interweaving slides for the penguins to walk up and down on. During the Second World War, he worked on the Mulberry temporary harbours, made to facilitate offloading of soldiers and cargo, which were deployed during the D-Day landings in France in 1944.

Then in the late 1950s, he collaborated with Danish architect Jørn Utzon on the Sydney Opera House, constructed from 1958-1973. The undertaking consisted of the first application of computer-generated calculations to a building project. On view is the original Ferranti Pegasus computer that supposedly saved 10 years of manual calculations, as well as preliminary sketches, technical drawings, models used for stress testing and calculations for the groundbreaking shells of the roof. Next came Arup's collaboration with Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano on the Centre Pompidou's external structure, characterized by the exposed escalators and engineering being a defining feature.

Also included are some of the projects in which Arup is involved today. These range from the infrastructure for Crossrail, the new underground railway for London and the south-east of England, and innovative technologies for SoundLab® and SolarLeaf, a facade system that cultivates micro-algae to generate renewable energy.


Penguin Pool, London Zoo, London, 1934 © ZSL
Sydney Opera House under construction, 6 April 1966 © Robert Baudin for Hornibrook Ltd. Courtesy Australian Air Photos
SydneyOperaHouse © David Messent
ExteriorviewofCentrePompidou, Paris, France © Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
SolarLeaf bio-reactive algae façade. Glasstatik BIQ Hamburg, 2013 © Colt/Arup/SCC
Doodle by Ove Arup © Private Collection
‘Private Ove’ Ove Arup and Partners Christmas Party Pamphlet, 1963 © Private Collection
Colour Lithograph portrait of Ove Arup by Le Corbusier. Private Collection © FLC, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London