Down in Frome, UFO country, I speak to an eclectic audience about footballer Bobby Charlton, and how attempting to shoot like him had influenced the anthropomorphic side of my engineering. How, as a small boy, I’d watched James Burke gripping the nation on the BBC as Apollo 8 disappeared behind the moon, triggering my own later search for technological thrills. I don’t mind talking about this stuff any more….I think it’s ok to be a nerd, ok to have heroes, ok to be idealistic. A man teaching people how to make bike frames for African villages came up and said he was inspired. And lo and behold, right in the front row, artist David Chandler made an animated cartoon sequence of the talk straight onto his Ipad, Hockney-style. Set to music by film producer Andrew Stanning….and vimeo-d around the world to avoid music copyright problems. Bobby Charlton became my role model, became engineering, became art, became Youtube.
Role models and inspiration coupled to communication…things in desperately short supply in the engineering world. A few days later I watch as Richard Rogers opens a new exhibition of Peter Rice’s work, hosted at Arup. Rice died 20 years ago last month. Rogers’ microphone fails, which only intensifies the moment. Gradually everyone shooshes, and so begins Rogers’ quiet tribute to a man he loved. He conjures up Rice the great friend, Rice the muse, Rice and Rogers as idealistic ingénue architects experimenting on the Pompidou Centre with Renzo Piano, three fellow travellers in life and work, still together in spirit 20 years after Rice actually left them. Rogers stumbles over Rice’s own poetic response to the end of his life….he tells of Rice the engineer with an imagination to beat them all, a man who could solve any problem with a dream. He remembers Rice imagining himself up on a high wall, and saying that in such a circumstance you have only one choice….you have to fly. After the endless recession, it’s transfixing, uplifting.
Rogers anchors Rice, and more particularly his attitude, slap bang in the present. A man who put humanity into technology, something of Rice’s free spirit washes over those who bear witness. Off to one side, listening from inside the prototype of the “Full Moon Theatre”, Rice’s late work, is Jane Wernick one of his many protégées. She beams with delight at the fitting irreverence of Rice’s small grandchildren, “Ricicles” as she calls them, who bash about the irreplaceable exhibit as if it’s a bouncy castle. Nearby, next to a still graceful but slightly dog-eared lump of ferrocement shell from the Menil Museum, is still graceful Parisian engineer Henry Bardsley, former crux of Rice’s alter-ego practice RFR. Bardsley has now joined Rem Koolhaas at OMA “because Rem is a great internationalist”. More likely, I think, Bardsley secretly hopes Rem might be able to communicate for engineers who can’t speak for themselves. In another corner, as finely presented as one of his projects, is the other R in RFR, Ian Ritchie, seemingly unchanged by the years. He’s politely collecting autographs from all those mentioned in the exhibition book, people whom we all know may not gather all together many more times. Also over from Paris are younger Piano-ites waxing about the rose-tinted days of Pompidou, and maybe hoping to catch some of the magic. And a great turn-out of architects from Rogers’ practice, including the marvellous sketching architect Laurie Abbott.
In London it’s raining, but inside, for an hour or two, 20 years roll away, and idealism flourishes. As the metaphorical lightning flashes in the street, I marvel at all the brains Rice has influenced. The average engineering or architectural IQ of the crowd is probably 160. What couldn’t they do if we wired them all up, I wonder? Yes idealism is catching, all a little retro, but how warm it is that evening, how empowering, how generous, how vital. On the train home, munching a cornish pastie, I reflect on Rice. Experimenter, QPR supporter in a bumble bee jumper, well on the way to legend, he’s still engineering’s latest role model. Tristram Carfrae, Arup’s coming man, was once one of his bright young things, yet what would he and the great man have thought about progress in the 20 years since Rice died. Carfrae learned from Rice how to be “disruptive” before it was fashionable, but is he still? Are we? Time to rekindle that flame?
Like Ritchie, Wernick, Carfrae and Bardsley, many of Rice’s old compadré’s now straddle engineering and architecture. One of them is Alistair Lenczner, once of Arup, for the past dozen years with Norman Foster, who still impersonates Peter Rice. Lenzcner portrays Rice, faced with a problem, as saying simply “..No, no, no, no, no…no…………YES!”. A few fine words which encapsulate the joy and power of a great engineering mind, and not a bad motto for ourselves. Thank you, Peter.