Black and white photo of Lennart Grut, Ted Happold and Peter Rice.

+ Lennart Grut, Ted Happold and Peter Rice – a fruitful collaboration

‘What is the role of an engineer?’ I recently explored this deceptively simple question in a documentary about the life and legacy of the celebrated engineer, Peter Rice, who died 20 years ago this year. The answer somewhat surprised me, although I must also admit that it didn't take me long to see the signposts – fairly large ones, as it turned out! – that Peter had left throughout his career.

You can see them in the many ground-breaking and innovative projects he completed and in the many fruitful collaborations that he formed with architects, engineers and clients. And the largest signpost of all can be seen in the book that he wrote in the final year of his life, a book whose title gives the answer away: ‘Peter Rice – An Engineer Imagines’.

Because if I was forced to draw just one conclusion from the journey I've been on in making this film, it's this: that Peter Rice's career and his approach to the engineering profession has given engineers license to imagine. In other words, Peter shows that engineers should feel just as comfortable in the world of imagining as they are in the world of analysis. His answer to the question ‘what is the role of an engineer’ – that the role of an engineer is to imagine – is both a challenge and an opportunity to the engineering fraternity.

One of the most interesting insights in the film came from a recording we found of a lecture he gave to his Arup colleagues in the late 1980s. (Our film opens with an extract from it.) Peter describes an event at a conference in which he was challenged by an architect, who said, “the problem with engineers is that you’re all Iagos”. Peter had then been told to read an article by WH Auden, in which Auden had put forward the idea that Iago was Shakespeare’s prototype for scientific man.

This characterisation of engineers as Iagos intrigued Peter (to say the least), and he uses this as a challenge to his audience: that they should try to escape this stereotype. He urged engineers to temper the use of pragmatism and constant questioning which, if left unbridled, can often result in the destruction of a noble or beautiful idea.

I think Peter had managed to control these Iago-like tendencies by the time he died at the age of 57 in 1992, when he was at the height of his career. In the many interviews we conducted with those who knew him best – architects, design and engineering colleagues, clients and family – a clear picture emerges of an engineer and innovator who combined an innate understanding of structure and engineering analysis with an equally strong desire to explore the poetic nature of ideas. He was freely described as a humanist, and Richard Rogers goes as far as to say Peter was the greatest living engineer he had ever met.

In his lifetime, Peter broadened the horizons of many bright young engineering minds. With this film, I hope a new generation of engineers will also be inspired. Perhaps they too will feel that they are free to imagine.

Watch Traces of Peter Rice