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Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century By Peter Jones.Yale University Press, 2006. 364pp. £25.00

The firm which Ove Arup founded in 1946 remains one of the major legacies of the creative ferment that followed the Second World War. Not many design practices born of this period can today claim a staff of 8,000 spread right across the world. This phenomenal growth is a justification enough for producing a biography of the founding father, even though the firm is a much bigger subject than the man.

At the outset, Arup's personal experience gave the practice its head start. Firstly, because he was expert in the practical realities of working in reinforced concrete, which had been his métier since his arrival in England in 1923.

Secondly, because that expertise brought him into alliance with Modernist architects, especially Lubetkin and members of the MARS Group. It was Lubetkin, he said, 'who taught me how good architecture was produced, and what serious business it was'.

But Arup trained in philosophy before he turned to engineering, so it is right that this biography is by a philosopher rather than an engineer or architectural historian. While it may be true, as Peter Jones says, that 'all of [Arup's] more philosophical observations could have been written by any one of a dozen writers in the 18th century', what's important is that his commitment to rational thinking was applied to building practice. To that was added what he learnt, mainly from Gropius, about the need for collaboration and synthesis in the design and construction process. Arup did not have a philosophy, in the sense of an all-encompassing world view, but instead a way of endlessly testing and refining ideas.

Naturally what interested him most was the relationship between architects and engineers. Contrary to what many expected, he was sceptical that structural honesty could produce good architecture. The real poetics of architecture, he insisted, had to include many other ingredients, with the result that visual structure and actual structure were seldom (except in the case of bridges) the same thing. That interest in the perception of buildings and structures was a far cry from the stodgy attitude of most of his engineering contemporaries.

There were many huge disappointments in Arup's quest for collaborative design: first his split from Lubetkin, whose Marxist metaphysics infuriated him, and then the spectacular parting from Jørn Utzon over the Sydney Opera House.

He was forced to realise that Utzon, a fellow Dane, was incapable of sharing his ideals.

From the Opera House crisis of 1960-66 to his death in 1988, this biography slightly loses its way. Arup increasingly became the firm's intellectual mascot while it developed in ways he had never envisaged.

The key thing, not fully explained, is how power passed to the next generations without losing Arup's constantly quizzical approach.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

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