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“An Engineer Imagines” by Peter Rice

An Engineer Imagines, by Peter Rice (Artemis, 1994; Ellipsis, 1996)
Reviewed by Ian Ritchie

The essential is invisible to the eye. This idea seems to permeate Peter’s book, which is an illustrated autobiography of a professional career. Throughout he makes a case for identity the public and media recognition of the engineer as an inventive and responsible member of contemporary society.

Peter conveys a sense of himself as the dreamer, revelling in a world ever increasing its dependency on empiricism and proof. He acknowledges that he couldn’t draw, nor did not have a natural or instinctive feeling for materials like Jean Prouvé or Martin Francis. He intimates that he became an engineer by accident, through exposure to the world of construction, most notably on the Sydney Opera House site.

This notion of the dreamer, expressed vividly through his childhood recollections, is slowly and carefully redefined upon reading of his personal involvement in key projects, until, towards the end of the book one is studying less the dreamer, more the poetic engineer. There is little doubt that the more Peter gained the respect of architects, the more his confidence grew, and the more he was allowed to be architect, engineer, licensed dreamer and poet simultaneously. One senses in the book that as much as individual professional responsibility was an important aspect to be recognised, professional prejudice and the boundaries they created were unacceptable obstacles to sharing in the creative and inventive process of the built environment. Peter attempts, in two chapters – The Role of the Engineer and The Chameleon Factor – to clarify the contribution to projects of both the architect and the engineer. He suggests that, in general, the architect is motivated by personal considerations while the engineer is concerned with the expression of the materiality of the project. He adds later, that the architect brings creativity, together with an attitude, opinions and preferences, while the engineer can seek and introduce an element of engineering exploration, and hence invention. These indicate a concern for an identity in an architecturally dominated post war environment and perhaps submerge a far more important message which concerned him. The spirituality, or lack of it in our present age. This is implied in the need for “traces de la main” content within the visible and material construction, and in the description of the The Full-Moon Theatre. This project, one of Peter’s last and most personal, embodies the spirit of an age searching for meaning – through an integration of art, science and environment; and through understanding the character of place and people, – of locality and identity. Here Peter is not the “servant” of an architect, nor indeed of a client. He is among people with whom he shares similar values and aspirations, and he had, perhaps, the chance to play the role of the wise man of light, which had become one of his favourite materials. His wisdom and freedom to remain a poet was largely built upon his access to engineering research, analysis and knowledge at Ove Arup + Partners, to whom he explains his indebtedness, and Ove Arup’s philosophy.

This book is an autobiography by an outstanding engineering professional, which reveals little of his family life. He explains his perception of and personal contribution to projects, and lets the reader discover his very genuine humanity and concern for quality and sensuality. All concerned with these issues in our built environment should take the trouble to read it.

© Ian Ritchie
May 24 1994