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Engineering artistry Engineer Price and Myers does more than ensuring works of art stay up - it often has a role in the creation as well

technical & practice

Even a small-scale sculpture may require an engineering solution. Today, when very many large, not to say huge, pieces are being commissioned, the role of the structural engineer in realising a sculptor's work is considerable. Price & Myers has completed 14 projects involving artworks in recent years. The practice regularly collaborates with sculptors to ensure the stability and structural integrity of large-scale pieces, to design suitable supports and foundations, and on checking existing galleries and exhibition spaces for the loads they must bear.

Artists that Price & Myers has worked with include Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Richard Wilson and Sol LeWitt. In the experience of Nick Hanika, a member of the practice, the structural engineer becomes involved at about the time when the client, the funding agency and the sculptor have agreed that a project should go ahead. He speaks highly of the engineering acumen of some sculptors and finds his role very much a supporting one. Nevertheless, many works Price & Myers has dealt with are of considerable size and weight, and detailed analysis is required. When the practice is called in, the work in question will exist only in the form of a maquette. As maquettes are usually small, the structural engineer has to create drawings to enable the proposed structure to be analysed fully.

One consideration is whether the finished sculpture might become a viewing platform or climbing frame. Hanika cites Let's Not Be Stupid, a sculpture by Richard Deacon at Warwick University. 'Will the work withstand the rugby fifteen full of celebratory beer one Saturday night?' was a question he asked himself. His speculations were well founded - soon after Deacon's work was completed, a traffic cone found its way to the highest point.

The main body of the sculpture is composed of three connected elements which are eccentrically loaded. Two self-supporting elements, 5m high and approximately 15m apart, lean out to each other and are bridged by a visually limp ladder-like structure. These are formally distinguished; one stands in a vertical cage. Both are constructed from I-beam section mild steel. These free-form shapes require analysis of bending shear and torsional forces not usually encountered in regular structures. Finite element analysis is a useful tool here.

The eye cannot be ordered to ignore a visual presence. Consider the distractions of clumsy supporting structures in the works of some important sculptors of the past; Degas' galloping horses come to mind, propped on deadening vertical poles. Today the negation or minimisation of visual intrusion by support structures is often a problem that will be resolved by the engineer. Hanika speaks of 'discreet intervention'.

Price & Myers was responsible for the installation of a marble bas-relief by Ben Nicholson at Sutton Place in Surrey. The marble relief is a copy and enlargement of an earlier wall-hung work. The marble is fixed back with stainless-steel cramps to a 215mm reinforced-concrete wall, 9m long, reinforced with 12mm diameter steel. Being 5m high, the work had to be resistant to overturning. The wall is continuous with its reinforced concrete base which is 1.5m wide and 0.4m deep, 1m below ground. To the viewer the support structure is all but invisible.

Moor, another large work by Richard Deacon, 5m x 25m x 3.5m, rests on three pre-existing bridge piers. It might be loosely described as mouth- like, the lower lip protruding forward in a curve towards the edge of the central supporting pier, the top one recessed in a shallow V towards the middle of the pier. It is constructed from 1500 x 1000 I-section beam, stiffened by web plates at points of maximum stress, following analysis by the engineer.

In Spital Square, London EC1, stands The Ascender by Martin Richman. This tower of glass becomes a round-the-clock artwork as it is lit from concealed fittings. This slender 8m tall structure with a plan size of 800mm x 800mm is formed from structural aluminium angles slotted to receive 15mm toughened-glass panels. The glass and aluminium are structurally bonded with silicone to form a vertical Vierendeel truss. Fluorescent tubes concealed in the angles light the glass.

A novel experience for Price & Myers came when it was consulted regarding the placing of a work by Richard Wilson. This was to take the form of a shed buried beneath ground level. As the location was near a canal the practice thought it should check on the watertable. As Robert Myers, the structural engineer, drilled a hole with an auger, water seeped into it, proving that the inverted apex of the shed would be below the watertable. When the artist heard this the work was transformed: the shed was replaced by a billiard table, through which was placed a large-diameter concrete drainage pipe extending down to the water table - and the finished piece was duly called Watertable.

Today the ongoing responsibility for public art often remains with the artist and might involve more than considerations of public safety. The artist might be held responsible for the upkeep and will turn to the engineer for advice about metallurgical issues. Various combinations - mild steel and stainless, for example - will give rise to concern about electrolytic corrosion. Materials must be selected to fulfil the work's sustainability in the physical and social environment.

The increasing co-operation between the artist and the engineer presents us with interesting speculations for the future. As materials are refined and developed, new structural possibilities will arise. It might be that the very aesthetic of sculpture will change. One thinks how cycle, motorcycle and car design has changed over the years, and with it so has our idea of what is beautiful or desirable in an ideal model.

One pointer to the future is the recent installation by Anish Kapoor in Gateshead's Baltic Flour Mills, now being transformed into the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. This involved the spanning of the interior of the gutted building, a void or corridor of approximately 1000m2, with a semi-transparent deep red membrane fabricated in pvc. Atelier One employed abseiling climbers in the erection of this.

Also important was the gigantic scaffolding cage, courtesy of Ove Arup, which surrounded the remaining shell of the building. Kapoor said: 'I am interested in the cage - the building is held in a cage of scaffolding. In order to see the building or the artwork you have to look through this cage. The building and the artwork are 'held', which makes the tension even more apparent.'

In this case, rather than discreet intervention, the work of the engineer becomes part of the work of art.

'Will the work withstand the rugby fifteen full of beer on a Saturday night?'

Nick Hanika

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