The architect's engineer Anthony Hunt's successful approach to structural engineering has its roots in his feel for the way architects think
He's a 'hero' to his former student James Dyson. His detailing is 'fantastically good and sensitive', and, to one former rival, he has 'a very good eye'. A second praises his 'feel for detail and architecture', while a former associate comments, 'He went bush . . . he understood architects much earlier than anyone else'. One architect collaborator adds: 'He is excellent . . . a joy to work with'; another praises his invention and ability to work with a wide range of materials.
This paragon among structural engineers is Tony Hunt, who founded Anthony Hunt Associates in 1962. His experience bears out his testimonials: the Sainsbury Centre, Willis Faber, Inmos, right up to the Dyson factory with Chris Wilkinson, the National Botanical Gardens of Wales with Foster's and Lloyd's Register of Shipping with Rogers, which brings him back almost to his origins, the Reliance Controls factory with Team 4.
His track record goes some way to explaining why 'he is an architect's engineer . . . something which very, very few engineers become' - as another erstwhile competitor puts it. These achievements could not have come without Hunt's particular approach to engineering. David Hemmings, now aha md who joined the firm in 1971, remembers 'Norman [Foster] and Tony lying on the floor talking through Willis Faber Dumas, saying, 'Do you think we could do it in glass?'; the concept was resolved in discussion'.
That interactivity has its roots in Hunt's formation as an engineer. 'I was articled to a very boring engineer,' he recalls. His contract required him to shun minor things like fornication, dice-playing or anything which might bring disrepute to his master.
What, apart from partying in South London and drinking coffee in Northumberland Avenue, rescued Hunt from the drudgery of concrete frames and brick walls was a course at the c&ca. There he 'heard people talking about Samuely's, Arup's and Freeman Fox'. It was 1951 and the Festival of Britain generated excitement. So 'I moved to Sam's and started to get to know architects'. Through Lyons Israel and Ellis, with whom he worked on a lecture theatre for the postgraduate medical centre at Hammersmith Hospital, he met Neave Brown, John Miller, David Grey, Paul Castle, Chris Dean and Stirling and Gowan. These contacts led to others; guests at a dinner party at Neave Brown's included Richard and Su Rogers: her parents had a property in Cornwall which, after various twists and turns, led to Creek Vean, meeting Norman and Wendy Foster and Reliance Controls.
'That was the turning point,' remembers Hunt. 'It won the first ft award.' But it was even more important for translating Rogers' and Foster's fascination with the lightweight industrial aesthetic of the California case-study houses into a real industrial building in the uk. It's a design ideal which runs through Hunt's work, right up to the Dyson factory.
Between Samuely's and starting his firm, he was an associate in the Wallingford architectural practice Morton Lupton, a conscious decision to work even more closely with architects. He subsequently set up aha, which, much later, was bought by yrm - a not entirely happy or successful association. After a fraught management buyout in March 1997, aha is now prospering on its own.
At an age when most people are in retirement, Hunt does deserve to be in charge of his destiny. But that's not fireside and slippers or polo and horses. He assured his fellow directors at the time of the buyout that he would go on for at least five years: meanwhile, and especially through regional offices in Sheffield and London, they are beginning to stamp their individual characters. But few people expect Hunt to retire completely; he enjoys the challenges too much. And Ove Arup was more than a quarter of a century older when he last went into his office. Hunt's career will overlap either end of the twentieth century's second half, making him an important link between the early days of the welfare state and the experimentation that period allowed (such as early comprehensive schools), and the future - in some of his projects he has helped to shape the future.
Hunt's formation undoubtedly helped to understand how architects think. He has an innate fascination with the sort of design problems architects enjoy - hence engineers' tendency to praise his details - and also what might be described as a sense of gratitude. Imprisoned in the boring end of engineering, architects and architecture set out a path to intellectual fulfilment. And that's reinforced by Hunt's ability to think visually. His Structures Notebook explains structure in simple language and comprehensible diagrams; he is also working on a book of his sketches.
Hunt does not apply a template of what engineering is, says one engineer, 'he needs something else to drive it'. That frequently comes from an architect's vision. Another engineer predicts he will be remembered ' . . . in the field of architecture. He belongs in a present-day movement where architects have worked with leading engineers, but he has a better artistic feel than most'.Practice profile, page 39