chris wise engineer

Engineering, bloody hell

So, at a time of great national misery as once again the Aussie cricketers are putting us to the sword, I find myself reflecting on how useful a sporting education is for Brits working in architecture and engineering. When I was at school I was fortunate to play cricket and rugby in teams which only lost about once every two years. Winning became an inevitable consequence of just setting foot on the field of play. Although we were only a free grammar school, we beat even the most expensive public schools, with great glee over the post-match baked beans. I suppose our esprit de corps, our expertise with the “athletic support” and eventually our winning reputation generated its own potent aura of invincibility. This has been a useful lesson for me over the last ten years as our little engineering practice competes with long-established global giants. Sporting parallels abound in the building industry……it is amazing how many fine engineers are keen on rock climbing (delicate balance); darts (precision); and sometimes snorkelling (living in a world of their own). I know architects who are keen on snooker (dress in black); the Argentinian tango (seduction); and spin-bowling (politics). Our clients practice golf (a walk in the park); polo (quality time with very rich people); and roulette (easy come, easy go). And as I know from recent experience, fee negotiations and Greco-Roman wrestling are practically the same.

Naturally sport teaches you how to lose with dignity. This is a very good thing for, say, RIBA competitions where your team may be competing against 100 others. The odds are stacked against you. Lose and your scheme, no matter how marvellous, will simply evaporate. Take for example, our entry for the RIBA competition for the walking buildings for the Halley Research Base in Antarctica with Hopkins and Atelier 10. In the end, despite reaching the last three, and with a late addition to our team in the shape of a pneumatic prototype made entirely out of Lego, we lost in a penalty shoot out refereed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. All hopes dashed, doom and gloom all round. Hopkins perceptive Bill Taylor afterwards observed, in the fine tradition of English sportsmanship, “You know, in the end, we may have played it slightly wrong”.

We fondly imagine that the more of these games we play, the better we get at knowing how to win. But when English fast bowler Fiery Fred Trueman said “If there is any game in the world that attracts the half-baked theorist more than cricket I have yet to hear of it”, of course he hadn’t worked in the building industry. I still play Sunday cricket, and as I wander out onto the greensward to bowl, I give it just as much oompf as I do at “work”. My own half-baked theory is that cricket and engineering are just two of many things that are all-consuming in the heat of the moment, indistinguishable in spirit. I suppose the fact I can play cricket at all at my advanced age with the body of a jellyfish shows that there is still something to be said for subtlety, experience, guile, surprise, psychology, determination, blarney. In building it is not just physical prowess or youthful vigour that wins, it is talent and experience craftily applied, with gusto.

With all this in mind, for our next architectural competition with Hopkins, the selectors made one or two strategic changes as we entered the race to design the 2012 Olympic Velodrome. We had decided that it was to be our only tilt at the Olympics, win or bust. In the end, the jury said something kind about our design team virtually riding into the final presentation in cycling shorts. Perhaps it was just our carefully applied Eau-de-Spandex but this time our game-plan must have been better as we convinced Chris Hoy and the other jury members, and won. Victory was very nice after the team got so close to the Antarctica job. Gold medal for Velodrome design, and naturally we were all very sorry about the losers, although no-one can now remember who they were.

The level playing field of sports, with its cathartic humour, is most efficacious at times of extreme duress. For example, when the Velodrome was under intense pressure to justify its curves during value engineering, I received an email saying something like: “We are pleased to announce the marriage of Miss Cycling Stadium and Mr Architectural Portacabin. Their love child will be born by articulated truck”. Luckily for the Olympics, Mr Portacabin was left standing at the altar. The marriage of sport and architecture is nothing new:- it is even said, if the French nobility had only played cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.

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