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Prospects of Whitby

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When Mark Whitby becomes president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ice) in 2001, he will still be younger than Ove Arup when he set up his eponymous engineering practice, a fact which delights Whitby. 'What I have done so far is nothing to what I am going to do,' he beams.

Yet the man who will be the youngest president since 1865 is a curious mixture. Fiercely competitive, he describes engineers as being like session musicians; the son of an architect, he believes that engineers should get their hands dirty; one of the highest-profile structural engineers, he derides the cult of personality.

Whitby attributes his ability to communicate with architects to his upbringing. He was the third of the six children of George Whitby, of architect McMorran & Whitby, and the Whitby children drew on the back of blueprints, visited their father's projects while under construction, and looked at lots of buildings. Born in 1950, Mark Whitby grew up in the 1960s when 'you never had the notion you wouldn't make a living'. He describes himself as 'educationally average but with a flair for art', but his real passion was sport and he competed in the 1968 Olympic canoeing team.

He toyed with the idea of architecture but was dissuaded by his father, who said it was only worthwhile if you were passionate about it. Whitby agrees: 'It is better to be a first-rate engineer than a second-rate architect,' he says. But in fact he rather drifted into engineering at King's College. His enthusiasm grew along with the realisation that 'drawings and thinking in three dimensions came naturally to me'.

After graduation he spent a year with Harris and Sutherland and then four years on site with Sir John Howard and amec. He considers this period to have been crucial. 'Making a building with builders is the most important thing that we do,' he says. 'One of the failings of many consulting engineers is that they don't appreciate what it is to be the person who resolves the drawings and has to build it.'

Next came spells with Buro Happold and Anthony Hunt Associates, where Whitby was responsible for the British Antarctic survey base at Halley bay and for the Patera Buildings with Michael Hopkins. In 1981 he set up a London office for Leeds-based Robert T Horne and Partners before starting his own practice in 1983 with Bryn Bird, with whom he had worked at Harris and Sutherland. Another partner, Mike Crane, joined them shortly afterwards.

Whitby Bird and Partners, as the practice is now called, employs 140 professionals - engineers, architects and physicists. With an impressive track record, Whitby seems proudest of winning four of the latest round of 19 Civic Trust awards, and in particular that two of the structures were bridges.

At first there seems a contradiction in that this man with a sympathy for architecture refuses to work with outside architects on bridges. Because they have such a large structural and constructional element, he feels they are much better suited to engineers. They also offer high fee value in relation to the project cost, and get Whitby Bird and Partners' name known by potential clients. But there is a more profound reason, and it is linked to Whitby's forthcoming presidency of the ice. There he hopes 'to address the problems for the profession of image and lack of confidence - the institution is responsible for it; it probably couldn't get much worse'.

One reason for these problems, Whitby believes, is that 'the society we live in today celebrates individualism', whereas 'engineering is never the result of one man's achievement'. He describes engineers' collaboration with numerous architects as akin to being a session musician - often invaluable but 'who wants to be a session artist?' With bridges, he says, 'we have the opportunity to have our own band'.

The answer to engineers' problems, he believes, is not for them to be more like architects but to celebrate the value of engineering. 'I do not believe that engineers should have clean hands,' Whitby says. 'Our role is to make real the ideas that people have. We are the people who take responsibility for providing the framework around which they can be made.'

This means, as far as his practice is concerned, that although he has worked with his fair share of big-name architects, 'we do ordinary buildings as well as the special ones. The future is more to do with making the ordinary extra-special rather than making the extraordinary'.

Another Whitby enthusism is the Edge, the multidisciplinary ginger group which is concerned about environmental issues. Whitby was an advocate of pedestrianisation and walking children to school long before Prescott discovered integrated transport.

But if that makes him sound all green and cuddly, he is also fiercely competitive. Pride of place in the reception of the practice's new offices (refurbished by Allies and Morrison, with the architect as a tenant) goes to the Foster Cup, the prize in the first year of a football league for architects and engineers. 'Whether it's playing football or making buildings, we want to win,' Whitby explains. 'We actively recruit football players. If they are that good at football, you can bet they will be good at engineering'. With talent and this degree of drive, the prospects of Whitby are looking good.

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