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The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Peter Rice

Review

The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture is a series which has already examined the work of Eladio Dieste, Anthony Hunt, Heinz Isler and Owen Williams.

AndrÚ Brown's new book sets out Peter Rice's design approach and describes his main built and unbuilt projects, writes Alex Wright.

The collection of these projects under one cover, is a startling reminder of what a fine engineer Rice proved himself to be. From the seven formative years spent realising Sydney Opera House, through the grands projets of the Pompidou Centre and the Louvre Pyramid, he was involved with many truly innovative, intelligent and well-made buildings over a period of 30 years.

Brown sets out the work in 14 logical chapters. None of the projects will be unknown to regular readers of the architectural press, and although the author has obviously done his research, there are no surprising insights or personal revelations in the rather predictable format.

Readers will probably not be surprised to learn of Rice's interest in unusual materials, in new collaborative ways of working, or in novel forms of structural analysis. It is certainly less of surprise when the same point is made, or paraphrased, in what feels like each of the first half-dozen chapters.Repetition is something that Rice avoided in virtually his entire working life; unfortunately, descriptions apart, repetition pervades too much of the text.

But Brown describes a series of innovative, charismatic and commanding projects, including the Renzo Piano's Menil Collection in Houston (pictured), the Lloyd's Building, Kansai and Stansted airports, Seville's Pavilion of the Future, and the Bari stadium. All of these owe a huge debt to Rice's creativity.

The quality of the elements, and the sheer legibility of the buildings, made Rice a quietly heroic figure, who helped to inspire a generation of British architects and engineers.

The scope and quality of his work would surely merit the sort of lavish tome to which many of his architectural colleagues have their names attached.

Instead, this is an overly-modest, grey little book. There are no colour illustrations and, apart from a less than glowing description of Les Nuages at La Grande Arche, no real critical content.

For engineering and architecture students it provides a valuable, though not riveting, review of Rice's career. For those of us who already know his projects, I hope the next book tells us more about him as a person and a designer; and even when there is nothing new to say, it should present his work at a scale and detail, and with a quality of illustration, that allows it to speak for itself.

Rice often expressed the view that engineers did not enjoy a status or level of understanding in Britain that enabled them to work creatively and productively - and this is reflected in the fact that most of his work was completed outside these shores. Hopefully, despite its deficiencies, this book might make a difference: it could be a small step toward improving the perceived role of the engineer.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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