National Theater Taichung

+ Despite the undefinable nature of quality, we must somehow still find a way to reach for it.

Recently I have been asked to think about quality and how to measure or define it, so people within Arup can gauge whether they are producing work that hits the mark. I approached this question by reading relevant research and by speaking to those whose views I respect, and was pointed toward an unlikely source of clarity on the subject: the 1970s bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The central character in Robert Pirsig’s novel is called Phaedrus. He becomes obsessed and is eventually driven insane by the question of what defines quality. Phaedrus is driven mad because he tries to define something fundamentally undefinable. What he – and the rest of us – must acknowledge is that there is no universal measure of quality, no magic metric to assess every new building we engineer or every piece of advice we give to a client. 

Despite the undefinable nature of quality, we must somehow still find a way to reach for it. I share the belief expressed by Arup’s founder, Ove Arup, who said that “we must…strive for quality in what we do, and never be satisfied with the second-rate”. In Zen, Phaedrus was driven mad - and treated with electroconvulsive therapy – in his quest for a universal definition of quality. I don’t want to go that far, but we can’t ignore the need to set ourselves standards and to be ambitious. 

We are left with a conundrum. On the one hand, we must strive for quality, as the foundation of Arup’s reputation and what drives us individually. On the other hand, there is no single method of judging the quality of our work. Agreeing on quality of service or standards for our documentation might be more straightforward, but judging the quality of our design work or advice is much harder – it is specific to each situation and often demands that we wrestle with competing issues. For our building projects, the designs we develop should be quicker and less costly to build, aesthetically delightful, robust and enduring, and economic in terms of materials use and energy demand. Each project must also meet the particular requirements of our client, end users and local communities. 

The exact recipe for quality is unique in each case and we achieve it when we deliver solutions that match these unique needs. A good example is our structural design for National Theater Taichung - a material-efficient realisation of the architect’s interconnected column-free spaces, all within a highly seismic area. Crucially, our design allowed seemingly-impossible shapes to be built in a series of simple stages, and for a cost that came in below budget.   

I have come to believe that the way to achieve quality is to nurture a ‘culture of quality’, one that has debate, enquiry and constant striving at its heart. If we explore what quality means for each new project, we will be in a position to take deliberate moves to maximise quality and to reject the second-rate. Our goal should be to embed a culture of quality, one that seeks to engage everyone in its pursuit. If we keep asking ourselves what quality means, and then seek to achieve it, it will come. And none of us will be driven mad like Phaedrus.