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The genius who allowed modern architects 'to go wild in the 21st century'

A new documentary pays tribute to the unassuming Irish engineer Peter Rice, who played a key role in the Sydney Opera House and Pompidou Centre


Vision: Peter Rice (back) and architects Renzo Piano (middle) and Richard Rogers during the construction of the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 1974. Photo by Tony Evans

Vision: Peter Rice (back) and architects Renzo Piano (middle) and Richard Rogers during the construction of the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 1974. Photo by Tony Evans

Vision: Peter Rice (back) and architects Renzo Piano (middle) and Richard Rogers during the construction of the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 1974. Photo by Tony Evans

'I'm actually quite often surprised myself by what the outcome is, because I'm a bit like a hound following a fox. I'm following something really close to the ground, and I can't actually see where it's going."

The person saying this is a structural engineer, the person responsible for the upright reliability of huge, vastly expensive constructions of steel and concrete that people need to feel safe inside.

It may sound like the latest soundbite from St James's, but these are in fact the words of one Peter Rice. You may not have heard of him, but this lack of orthodoxy made him one of the most important engineers in modern history, someone whose innovations were so influential that they, as architecture critic Jonathan Glancey put it, "allowed people to go quite wild in the early 21st century".

Since succumbing to a brain tumour in 1992 aged 57, language has attached itself to the curly-haired Dublin-born/Dundalk-raised father-of-four that has no right being anywhere near the exacting world of engineering.

Magician. Poet. Explorer. Topsy-turvy. Performance artist. "The James Joyce of structural design", or as Italian architect Renzo Piano put it, "a man playing piano in the dark".

Simply put, Rice was something of an anomaly, not only for the left-of-centre logic he brought to the table, but more importantly a playful sense of possibility about everything when the structural engineer's role was typically to fold the arms and tell the architect to rein-in his fantasies. A more mild-mannered Brunelleschi, if you will.

From the spinal columns of the Lloyd's Building in London and Sydney Opera House's fornicating shells, to the beguiling Parisian wonder of both the Pompidou Centre and Louvre's Inverted Pyramid, Peter Rice is the man who made drawings and measurements a reality for all time. The breakthroughs, the strokes of inspiration and the crowning adjustments are where he made his mark on world architecture, even though he was notoriously sheepish about claiming credit.

A new documentary about this unassuming maverick looks to address this by portraying not only the lofty position he is held in to this day by those in his field, but also something more sensuous and illuminatory he was composed of. An Engineer Imagines (named after Rice's 1993 autobiography) is a paean to a type of open and inclusive brilliance that the world is in urgent need of today.

"There was something about his amazing spirit and integrity, his human values that are now more relevant than ever," director and Bafta-winning cinematographer Marcus Robinson says.

"Everybody is keen to create some legacy, that their time on earth has been of some service. The fact that he was very aware of a sense of passing on his wisdom to young people, and also that his creations would be of service to humanity in its highest sense, comes across very strongly in these great architects who talk about Peter. There's something about transcending the ego and being able to allow the beauty and quintessential essence of an idea shine forth that was very ahead of its time."

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Acting as punctuation throughout the film are interludes about Rice's involvement with the Full Moon Theatre, a nocturnal amphitheatre in southern France lit organically by funnelled lunar rays. To help make the ethereal tangible, Rice was brought in by its founder and dear friend Humbert Camerlo. At one stage, Camerlo becomes overwhelmed with emotion when recalling the elusive strands connecting Rice to his homeland.

"There's something about that Irish spirit that's very international, very accepting, very welcoming," agrees Robinson, "and in his humour and wider interests. The Irish spirit is extraordinary. Another reason we wanted to make the film was to tell the story of an Irish person we should feel proud of - a really beautiful and uplifting story at a time when Ireland is at the forefront of a lot of modern thinking and ideas in social cohesion."

Cork-based architect Kevin Smyth is a former council member of Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI). He outlines a similar theme of what Rice's legacy means to his peer group working on the ground today.

"He was one of the few engineers ever to feature in Irish architectural education, not because he was Irish, but because he worked with all the great architects of the time, and frankly made them all look great because he was an innate designer, not simply a problem-solver.

"As architectural students in the 80s and 90s, it seemed difficult to claim him as our own because on the one hand he was an engineer, on the other he had completely transcended national identity working on such seminal international projects. His success was so totally international and his Irish identity did not feature in any monographs other than to say he was born and raised here. It was liberating to think that there was someone who never leveraged his national identity but was at the top of his game on merit alone. As an early member of the vanguard of Irish design, he showed us that you could be from here and have something to offer on an international stage."

Raised in a Catholic household in 52 Castle Road, Dundalk, Rice studied at Queen's University in Belfast before heading to London for further study and a berth at Ove Arup & Partners in 1956 (joking that it attracted him for being "a place where an oddball could fit in".) The following year, Ove Arup got the contract for Jørn Utzon's ambitious Sydney Opera House. As site engineer, Rice - still in his early twenties - was charged with making the complex roof design "work". Seven years of geometric and structural-design brilliance followed and the rest is history. Quite an entrance to make.

While in London, he met Sylvia Watson, and the couple fell in love and eventually married before sprouting a family and settling in rural Wiltshire (where he is now buried). Cinema was a shared obsession of the couple. Rice even harboured early ambitions of becoming a director, a sensibility that some feel played a part in allowing him to "see" work in a 3D surrounding at a time before computers performed this service.

With no Rice buildings adorning the Irish landscape and his name criminally under-recognised here, An Engineer Imagines feels like the perfect introduction to precisely the kind of quiet, self-effacing genius Ireland is traditionally keen to boast about.

"When I lived in Paris, you'd see very famous French architects on cool TV chat shows," Robinson says. "There was something perceived to be less glamorous about engineering. But I think we're now living in a time when the pendulum is swinging back to people appreciating values of a more hands-on approach and tactile organic human values as a reaction to social media. There's a thirst for genuine human relations and integrity that is starting to come back again, and I think someone like Peter Rice would be very much at the forefront of that."

'An Engineer Imagines' opens at selected cinemas on Friday, March 1. Q&A previews at QFT, Belfast on Tuesday, Omniplex Dundalk on Wednesday, and the opening night at IFI, Dublin on Friday. www.sentioar.com

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