Creating a new respect for engineering

+ Engineering’s hidden hand is far more fundamental to architecture and design than we normally realise.

As co-curator of Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design at the V&A Museum in London, one of my central goals was to use this exhibition as an opportunity to shine some much needed light on the vital and creative role that engineers play in the creation of our built environment. Too often are engineers the ‘unsung heroes’ that design the world we live in. Exhibiting engineering in a design museum is an important way of enhancing public understanding of the discipline. There is a lot we can all learn by seeing the world through the eyes of the engineer. 

Most people engage with buildings and infrastructure in finished form, as completed and habitable spaces. The design qualities of what they encounter are typically read as architectural, aesthetic features, while the engineering systems at work in a building (and all the engineering design that went into refining the architecture itself) although closely intertwined, often remain hidden, invisible, or perhaps not noticed. Exhibitions about the built environment often perpetuate the cycle of hiding, rather than revealing the full process that shaped a design. Displays about buildings often focus on presenting the finished product, exhibiting a final design through photographs, models and drawings. Focussing however on artefacts from the process and the stories of creative problem solving at the heart of engineering design, as we do in our V&A exhibition, allowed us to showcase the creative work of engineers and highlight their fundamental role in shaping our built world. 

There is no better person than Ove Arup to tell the story of the importance of engineering. His philosophy of Total Design redefined the way architects, engineers and designers work together, leaving a lasting legacy of collaborative practice. He inspired a generation of engineers and architects who worked on some of the 20th century’s most celebrated and pioneering buildings, from the Sydney Opera House to the Menil Collection in Texas and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) Headquarters. Projects like these powerfully demonstrate the impact of Ove Arup’s ideas and the seamless fusion of engineering and architectural creativity that he inspired. 

The sublime daylit gallery spaces of the Menil Collection were shaped by an extremely close architect-engineer collaboration. The team’s design combined an intuitive study of lighting effects with architectural sculpting and the science of light monitoring, as revealed by the many original artefacts from the process displayed in our show. These enable appreciating an otherwise invisible engineering system. While in the case of the HSBC Headquarters office tower, we can tell the design story behind this now iconic ‘High Tech’ building from the engineers’ lens, revealing how an innovative approach to construction and prefabrication of parts became a defining feature of the architecture itself. The final building harmonises functional engineering with aesthetics – it is hard to say where the architecture ends and engineering begins.  

I hope that our exhibition encourages people to recognise the thoughtfulness, creativity and sheer problem-solving effort that makes our constructed world possible. By recognising Ove Arup’s legacy we can begin to foster a culture that gives engineering the respect it deserves.