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From Sydney to Scotland: the art of engineering reputations

In the ever-increasing cast of characters in the Scottish parliament debacle, the structural engineer is noticeable by its absence.Given that the controversy centres on cost and that the structural complexity of the project is clearly a contributing factor, the low profile of the engineer is extraordinary - but undoubtedly deliberate.Arup was well placed to predict the troubles that beset the Holyrood project. It has been here before - many times, but perhaps most famously in the saga of the Sydney Opera House, another project which was structurally ambitious, way over budget and very much in the public eye.

As Peter Murray reveals in his new book, The Saga of the Sydney Opera House (see AJenda, pages 16-17), Arup found itself shouldering the responsibility for managing the project and for carrying out working drawings for the building shells - services for which it received no formal acknowledgement or financial reward.Confusion over the relationship between architect and engineer continues to this day.While Richard Weston's book Utzon: Inspiration, Vision, Architecture, published last year, contended that, in continuing to work on the project after Utzon's departure, Arup denied the architect the support that 'conceivably might have saved him', Murray argues that Arup was fully supportive of the architect and that its decision to see the job through was motivated not by 'business interests', as Weston contends, but by a sense of moral obligation to the project and the client.

The controversy caused immense pain, particularly to Ove Arup himself, a great admirer of Utzon, who was dismayed at the deterioration in their personal and professional relationship.But the practice has learnt from the past, not least in the way it handles situations that are potentially inflammatory.This, after all, is a practice so adept at public relations that it managed to turn the potentially catastrophic saga of the Millennium Bridge into a PR triumph.Tony Fitzpatrick, who died in an accident earlier this year, was universally remembered as 'the man who took the wobble out of the wobbly bridge'.Arup is ahead of the game not only as an engineer but in its astonishing ability to remain untouched by controversy while working on the most controversial projects.

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