An artist in small matters
May 19, 2015
Ove Arup’s prominent place in architectural history owes as much to his broad-ranging curiosity as his formidable technical skill. Having studied philosophy before turning to design, he remained intellectually voracious throughout his life, cheerfully drawing on insights from art, science, and everyday experience to enrich his life and work.
Today, Ove “is mostly remembered as an engineer of genius,” his daughter Anja Liengaard wrote in the introduction to Doodles and Doggerel, the book after which this site is named. To those who knew him personally, however, “he was first and foremost a philosopher, a seeker after truth, who was actively engaged in finding out as much as he could about life: how it should be lived, what answers there are to mankind’s eternal questions, in short ‘what the whole thing is about.'”
Published in 1989, the year after his death, Doodles and Doggerel showcases the bold, playful drawings and poetry he created over the decades — and offers a glimpse into the creative spirit that continues to guide the firm he founded. This book, along with a 2006 biography and an essay collection entitled Philosophy of Design, provide a deeper understanding of his life and legacy.
The interview below, an excerpt from the latter work, is a transcript of a never-broadcast 1964 BBC interview — accompanied by, of course, samples of both doodles and doggerel.
Mr. Arup, you’re known as one of the leading British Civil Engineers, but though you speak English remarkably fluently, you still have a distinct Danish accent, I think you will agree with that. How did you become English originally?
Well, I would not claim to have become English, exactly, but I’ve become a British subject, by being born in Newcastle, and that was simply because my father at that time worked in Newcastle. He started professional life as a veterinary surgeon, and after practicing for about twenty years in Northern Jutland, was asked by the Danish Government to look after their interests in Newcastle. However, soon after my birth the trade in live cattle, with which he was mainly concerned, switched to Hamburg, and he was sent to that city, and that is where I spent the first twelve years of my life, until I was sent to a Danish boarding school in 1907.
You were at school in Hamburg?
Yes. My mother was Norwegian, and at home we spoke Danish or Norwegian, they are about the same thing, or at least they were at that time, except for a difference in accent, but of course the language I came to know best was German. My father did not want me to become German, however; he had been much happier in England, and did not care very much for the German mentality, and that is why I was sent to Denmark to one of the only two public schools – Sorø – run more or less on English lines – we even played cricket. There I stayed till I was 18, taking my entrance exam to the university in Copenhagen in 1913.
How did you react to life in a public school, and being moved to another country?
Not too badly, on the whole. In Germany I had been in opposition, so to speak, resenting the rather blatant German patriotic propaganda – on one occasion my younger brother and I had to fight a whole bunch of boys because we were being abused for being Danish, and had to retreat with as much dignity as we could muster. As a result I came to Denmark as a rather blue-eyed Danish patriot, but that was soon knocked out of me. Or rather, it was just not on the agenda, nobody was interested. Of course, in a public school one learns to keep one’s ideals and secret longings safely underground, only to be revealed to a few trusted friends. Also here I drifted into a kind of opposition – my form was rather good at sports, school matches, etc. I was simply not interested. And I am afraid I was not particularly interested in school traditions, I resented any kind of bullying, however hallowed by custom. But I loved the countryside, the beautiful woods, the lake and park and all that, I was glad to escape from a big city. I wanted to study nature, animals, insects, fish, to become an explorer or scientist. But I also read a lot, mostly the usual boys’ stories, Cooper, Marryat, Carrit Etlar, Defoe, Jules Verne and that sort of stuff. However, there was no doubt in my mind, when I had to decide at 15, that I wanted to study science rather than classical languages, much to the disgust of my Headmaster, who was a classical scholar of some distinction. At that time I came across Darwin, I read The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and that set me thinking of a lot of things. I liked his sober, methodical, scientific approach, and it seemed to me that he had established without doubt, that all species, including man, evolved from lower forms, by whatever mechanism this was achieved.
I read other books, the German Haeckel, whose brazen materialism I found very shallow, Spencer and various others, but also Kierkegaard, whose savage attacks on the hypocrisy of official Christianity I could but approve of. And I admired his wit and irony, and the intellectual honesty of his ‘credo quia absurdum’. I also got a vague idea of Indian philosophy, and read Hoffding’s psychology – and for that matter Thomas Hardy and Bernard Shaw’s Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant and Danish and German literature, and Ibsen, of course. Not that I was a bookworm exactly, I did many other things, and enjoyed the last years of my schooldays. I was actually very sorry when I had to leave. But all this had left me rather bewildered, there were so many problems to solve: How did life evolve from matter? How to square free will with determinism, Western science with Eastern mysticism? The nature of truth, the foundation of ethical beliefs and behavior – all that and more. Obviously I had to find out before I could think of a profession. It seemed rather absurd to me that the object of life should be to earn a living. So I decided to study philosophy.
Although you studied philosophy you took up civil engineering. Now there seems some distance between these two. What moved you from philosophy to civil engineering?
Well, I am afraid that I got rather into a muddle, I lived through what the Germans would call a ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, which really means a lack of control over one’s personal problems, feelings and behavior – altogether taking oneself far too seriously. My friends were a rather mixed lot, seen from a sober bourgeois standpoint, mostly artists. It was very easy to tempt me to attend a party or go sailing instead of reading Kant or Schopenhauer, and I rather neglected my studies or read all sorts of things which had very little to do with them. I re-discovered the old truth, that there is a great difference between knowing what one ought to do, and doing it. But as for Truth with a capital T, that eluded me. And that was really the main reason why I abandoned philosophy. Closer acquaintance had made me realize that it consisted of a series of specialized disciplines, Theory of Knowledge, Ethics, Psychology and so on, all involving a lifetime immersed in books, and none of them answering the questions I had set out to solve. In fact in philosophy there seemed to be no answers, only more and more subtle questions. Science, or any logical reasoning, cannot solve the human predicament: What is the whole thing about? What are we? Where are we? What are we supposed to do? What is good or evil? Can we, or should we teach the tiger not to eat meat? The greatest happiness for the greatest number?
And what is happiness, and Truth, and Beauty? I revolted against ideologies, philosophical systems, moral codes, on Kant’s insistence on rectitude in preference to kindness. I realized that human relations are important, that art is important; listening to a fantasia and fugue by Bach I felt that here was something that was good in itself no matter whether the mysteries of this world were solved or not. If I could have become a great artist, I would gladly have left philosophizing to others, but I obviously wasn’t cut out for that. But you could also be an artist in small matters. To create anything which was good of its kind would give satisfaction. For a joiner to make any old table would perhaps not be very exciting, but to make a really good one would be fun.
It was some such reasoning which made me switch over to engineering. I was good at mathematics, and this was something I at least thought I could do. I was not so sure that I had enough artistic ability to become a really good architect. I liked the idea of designing some nice bridges, but I cannot say that I felt wildly enthusiastic about it, I disliked the idea of specialising, and felt that I was perhaps giving up too easily.
Then after finishing your studies, how did you get your first job in your chosen profession?
I applied for a job with Christiani and Nielsen, a well-known firm of engineers and contractors, who had been the first to introduce reinforced concrete to Denmark, and who had branches in many countries. I was offered a job in Hamburg, not the place I would have chosen to go to, because I wanted to see something different, but I took the job.
It was just after the first world war, and during the two years I was there the mark completely collapsed – it ended up by being one thousand billion marks to a shilling. That led to some pretty absurd situations, with all the big firms printing their own money. There was also a lot of political upheaval, with fighting and barricades in the streets. Also in the literary and artistic world there was turmoil, disillusion turning into extreme pacifism, eastern mysticism, lots of new movements, defiance and grim humour, with new plays by Ernst Toller, Fritz von Unruh and others having their first performance at the Hamburger Kammerspiele – all very exciting and entertaining if not very convincing. My favourite authors were Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, both well established before the war.
But in Hamburg I certainly learnt how to design quay walls and all sorts of marine structures. Christiani and Nielsen were pioneers in this field, and I am very grateful for what I learnt during my twelve years stay with this firm, first in Hamburg and then – for ten years – in London. I am mainly indebted to Mr Forchhammer, who was in charge in London at the beginning of my stay, and who was an inspired engineer. He had organised the whole technical know-how of the firm and supplied most of the ideas to start with. They had an excellent system, which we have also adopted in my present firm, of circulating technical reports on interesting jobs, special difficulties encountered and overcome, new methods of calculation, and so on to all branches, so that you really benefited from the firm’s experience everywhere. And their emphasis was on good design, as their main means of securing contracts. Of course there are other stratagems involved, but having the best possible design to start with is more than half the battle – or at least it ought to be.
Having the best possible design to start with is more than half the battle – or at least it ought to be
Design and method of construction ought to be completely integrated, you see, design is really nothing else than inventing and indicating a sensible method of construction, that is, one that leads to the desired result with the least effort, taking into account all the local and other circumstances. This is fairly obvious if you have to build something in the middle of the sea; how you set about the job, whether you drive piles from a staging, sink cylinders, float caissons or build inside a coffer dam must of course affect the design. But it really applies to all construction, building, and for that matter manufacturing. It has however been my – I almost said bitter – but at any rate often frustrating experience, that the paramount importance of getting the right design is hardly understood by laymen, including clients, is rarely grasped by building authorities and the legal profession concerned with building, often not even by architects who leave the costing of jobs to quantity surveyors and therefore lose touch with the method of building, or by consulting engineers, who concern themselves exclusively with structural stability, but leave matters of construction to the contractor. In the organisation of the building industry, great care is taken through the system of competitive tendering to obtain the lowest price for a given design, but hardly any attention is paid to getting the best design. And it must be admitted, that this is a very difficult thing to do.
I’m afraid you are jumping ahead a bit. Could you tell us what brought you to England?
Well, I never intended to stay in Germany. I was travelling with a British passport, and intended to come to England sometime, but I thought it would be a good idea to learn French first, so I applied for a job in the Paris branch. They had no vacancy for me there, however, and I was transferred to London.
Did you find it difficult to adapt yourself to the English approach?
It was certainly a big change. There were so many exciting things, big coal fires in the waiting room at Harwich station, arriving in London in a real old-fashioned pea-souper, with policemen carrying torches walking in front of a string of buses, coal fires even in the drawing offices, and lots of nice tea and crumpets and roast beef and two veg. But of course London is big. I had an Uncle and Aunt living in Kew, who had been in London for forty years, they were very kind to me, and I stayed there the first couple of weeks until I found a bed-sitting room in Pimlico, within walking distance of Victoria Street. The proprietor was a real butler, complete with side-whiskers; he and his wife had served in a number of big houses, their thoughts seemed to be entirely focused on the doings of the great, and he could hardly talk about anything else. Altogether England at that time, 1923–24, seemed to me rather old-fashioned, young people seemed healthy-minded, innocent, or naive but not a bit interested in intellectual gamesmanship, having never heard about Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, or even their own Bertrand Russell. But then I did not know London or England, I did not speak the language well, I mixed a lot with foreigners and had no access to any set which might have shared my interests.
So I felt rather lost, although there was much to see and discover. But then I had the remarkably good luck to find a Danish girl, who had been sent over to London by the Rockefeller Foundation to teach domestic science to some Women’s Institutes, and that changed my life. We got married in 1925, I found a furnished studio in Battersea, just across Chelsea Bridge – my salary of five pounds a week was just enough to live on, but no more – and I settled down just to be happy. I did not bother much about philosophy, and I was still reluctant to get completely swallowed up by engineering or to take my career too seriously.
So you did not make any plans for the future?
No, I just did my job fairly conscientiously, but no more. I cycled to and from the off ice, and when the weather was nice, met my wife in Battersea Park on the way home. But then gradually I got more absorbed in my job, and was given more responsibility. Christiani and Nielsen preferred to design their own jobs, but this was not the accepted practice in England, where there was a sharp distinction between the consulting engineers on the one side, and the contractors on the other. The first were professional people, bound by a code of honor to serve the client, the second worked for profit, and had to be carefully watched and supervised so as not to cheat the client. This was forty years ago, of course. Design was therefore the province of the consulting engineer, borough engineers, chief engineers of railway companies and so on, and the idea of designing contractors was frowned upon. So the firm had to a large extent to follow this pattern and carry out work to other people’s design. And in the beginning I several times got into serious trouble by suggesting to people that they could save a lot of money by altering the design. On a few occasions our firm was even put on the black list and never asked to tender again.
Did you find that English people refused to adopt new ideas unless you could show the evidence?
I think it is fair to say that that was often the case before the war. It has changed now. And then we were really reinforced concrete specialists, and this was a material which was not much understood then, and which was under heavy suspicion. Not entirely without reason, for the workmanship was often bad. But the code of practice was so conservative that any kind of concrete was strong enough for what was asked of it.
There is no doubt about it, the design which we came across was often shockingly bad. And it is kind of frustrating, when you know that you could save the country thousands of pounds, not to be allowed to do anything about it. And as a contractor, at that time at any rate, you only got about ten per cent of the work you tendered for, and I think that many of my best ideas lie buried in the files of Christiani and Nielsen. Of course as a consulting engineer, your frustrations are of a diff erent kind. If you are appointed for a job, your client will accept your ideas, and if you are able to give him a good job and save him some money at the same time, you are happy, even if he may never discover it, because he has nothing to compare it with. But the frustration comes in when you are never consulted about the kind of job which you feel you could do very well. Bridges and marine structures for instance. But I can’t complain, really, I have always had plenty to do, even if not always what I would have liked to do. And a good deal of frustration is the common lot of mankind – nobody has yet devised a system which will exploit the capacity of each individual to the full.
The design which we came across was often shockingly bad
Had this frustration anything to do with your leaving Christiani and Nielsen?
To some extent, perhaps, but it was not as simple as that. I had for some time been dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on a designer in a contractor’s office. The main object is, and to some extent must be, to make money. A competitive design must be cut to the bone. To do that, it must be a good design, and design and method of construction must be perfectly matched because this reduces costs. So far so good – excellent, in fact. But when this has been done, something should be added back to improve the design at its weakest points, so as to get a more balanced and sound design. And something should be done to make it more pleasing, more satisfactory aesthetically, to make it better architecture – because after all, all manmade features are also architecture, and must be judged as such. But this the contractor cannot afford, if he wants to remain competitive. And even if he could – and this is quite possible, for good architecture need not necessarily be more expensive, it only needs taking great trouble, and having the right kind of judgement – the contractor very rarely has that sort of judgement, unless he is a [Pier Luigi] Nervi or [Félix] Candela, and if he seeks architectural advice, which costs money and is therefore nearly always ruled out for engineering structures, he probably gets hold of the wrong architect, because he does not know any better. In any case you cannot tack architectural advice on to an engineering scheme, the architecture must be completely integrated with and arise from the structural and constructional concept. So to get all round quality – architectural quality, structural quality, functional efficiency and to keep within the budget – this is very very difficult. It requires that power to control, or at least to influence or persuade, should be in the hands of someone who is able to judge these different qualities, and who has the will to achieve perfection. A quality surveyor with a passion for perfection. This of course is a counsel of perfection, and outside practical politics in all but the most exceptional cases. As it is, building and construction is dominated by quantity surveyors, lawyers, businessmen, bankers, Treasury officials and that sort of person in whose mind the question of good design and architectural quality hardly ever crops up.
But all this hardly justifies moving from one contractor to another?
No, you are right. But you see I had for some time been interested in modern architecture, I joined the Architectural Association, I got to know Lubetkin and through him joined the MARS – or Modern Architectural Research Group – just after it was founded by Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry, Lubetkin and others. MARS was aff iliated to CIAM – Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne – led by Corbusier, [Walter] Gropius, [Cornelis] van Eesteren and others, and they undertook a complete reappraisal of the function and aims of architecture.
The modern architectural movement was very fond of reinforced concrete, in spite of the fact that used wrongly, as it often was, it could be a very unsuitable material for housing. It was more a fashion, a matter of style, but of course that was not officially admitted, as ‘functionalism’ – fitness for purpose – was the battle-cry. However, I realised that there was a future for reinforced concrete for multistorey buildings, to replace the steel frame, a type of construction much too wasteful of steel, and therefore fundamentally expensive. (There was, but it has taken thirty years for it to sink in.)
I therefore proposed to my firm that we should go in for this kind of construction, but they were not interested. I can well understand their reluctance, because there was not much money in it at the time, but I was interested in the architectural possibilities, so that when I was off ered a job with J. L. Kier and Company as director responsible for designs and tenders, I accepted on the condition that the firm would interest itself in what we may call architectural structure. And this started my long collaboration with the architectural firm of Tecton. We built Highpoint I and II, the Penguin Pond and other Zoo buildings, Finsbury Health Centre and the flats at Rosebery Avenue and Busaco Street, the first examples of what I first called boxframe construction.
But by that time I had already left J. L. Kier and Co. and founded my own firm, Arup and Arup Ltd. together with a cousin of mine. This was in 1938 and war was approaching.
That was when you got interested in the design of shelters?
Yes. Through my connection with Lubetkin I became consultant to the Finsbury Borough Council and was asked to make proposals for their shelter program. The brief was to provide protection against a direct hit from a half ton bomb for the whole population of Finsbury at a cost which they could afford. Moreover, we were only allowed to build on the many open squares they had in Finsbury, the police at that time objected to street shelters, and private premises were not available. And we could only build down, and not upwards.
There was only one possible solution to this brief, namely to build large multi-story underground shelters in each of the squares, protected by a thick heavily reinforced concrete slab on top and around the sides. Obviously, if you have to provide this expensive concrete slab to protect everybody underneath from a direct hit, you simply cannot afford to have only one layer of shelter, you must use the slab to protect as many layers as would be practical from the point of view of access, evacuation, ventilation, etc. So we evolved an economical way of building these shelters in the form of large spiral ramps which were so dimensioned, that they could later on be used as carparks. They were fully air-conditioned, subdivided and provided with bunks and lavatories so that they could be used to provide a night’s rest under safe conditions. These were the so-called deep shelters.
I believe they caused a certain amount of controversy?
Well, that is certainly an understatement. A hell of a row, I would say, which lasted for years. Tecton’s and my proposals were shown at a large exhibition at Finsbury Town Hall, and included an illustrated report where the whole question of shelter construction was considered scientifically, from the point of view of getting the maximum value for money. I could obviously not decide how much money the country could afford to spend on shelters, or how much protection was politically indispensable, but as an engineer I could perhaps suggest how to spend the money wisely, so as to get maximum protection for a given sum, or pay the least for a given amount of protection. And in my report which was subsequently issued as a book, I clearly showed that to give everybody protection against a direct hit from a large bomb would be a very expensive affair indeed. The best value for money would be obtained by constructing multi-cellular wall-shelters, as I called them. These would give very good protection against anything falling outside the shelter – and that meant of course the large majority of dangerous bombs. This meant, that I did not really approve of the brief we had been given by Finsbury, but I strongly maintained that the deep shelter was the only possible solution to this brief.
Anyhow, the Government did not approve of the deep shelters, because they objected to large shelters in principle – they were afraid of possible political repercussions or of panic if a lot of people got together, and they refused to support the Finsbury scheme. Finsbury however persisted, and placed the contract for the first large shelter with Peter Lind and Co. with the aid of borrowed money. Strangely enough the war put an end to the construction, because all contracts at that time had a war clause which enabled the contractor to ask for revised terms if war broke out, and the loan which Finsbury had obtained to pay for the shelter did not allow for this contingency. It was a pity in a way, because the method of construction would have made engineering history, and the shelter would not have cost more per person accommodated than the rather inefficient brick street shelters later built by the Government. Also it would have made a very useful car park after the war. In so far as there was any Government policy about shelters at that time, it consisted in reliance on dispersion. I had pointed out in my report that dispersion only made any sense if people were moved from an area where bombs were likely to fall, to one where they were less likely to fall – for instance from towns to the country or away from likely targets such as bridges, factories, etc. But this was heresy in the eyes of the powers that be – or were – in fact it was even worse than the Finsbury deep shelter proposals, because it undermined all the official propaganda put out at the time.
Sir John Anderson, as he then was, came to the exhibition and assured me that his experts could prove to me that I was wrong. I was naturally very anxious to meet these experts, but it was not until long afterwards, after the war had started and Ellen Wilkinson had been put in charge of shelters, that I succeeded in obtaining an introduction to one of these experts, a Civil Servant at the Home Office, I think. I liked Ellen Wilkinson very much, she was honest and sincere and very eager to do the right thing, but she was not exactly a mathematician. I had many long sessions with her about my shelter theories, which were based on the law of probability and certain facts from official documents about the destructive power of different types of bombs, and I had prepared a picture book for her which made the whole thing absolutely clear. She was visibly shaken, and arranged for me to visit this expert. He was a mathematician, and a cultured and delightful person besides, and he surprised me by admitting straight away that I was completely right, a fact which the experts were perfectly aware of, but which I could not expect a mere Minister to understand. But there was more to it than that. What matters was to keep people quiet, to give them confidence in the measures taken and prevent panic; this psychological or political aspect was really more important than the safety of the shelters. He went so far as to say that if a board which spelled SHELTER could make people feel safe in any old basement, he would be satisfied. I found this view a bit cynical and was worried about what the consequences might be, but there was not much I could do about it.
After the war I think you left Arup and Arup and devoted all your time to consulting work. By this time you had become very well known as a Civil Engineer and a designer in reinforced concrete, who was interested in modern architecture and therefore able to help architects with their structural problems. You had strong views about the relationship which should exist – or does exist – between the architect and the engineer, and you had written articles and made speeches about it.
Yes, I gave up contracting largely because it became more and more impossible to combine contracting with design – and it was design which interested me. Contractors were not supposed to have any ideas, if they had they were not listened to, and if they were they were not paid for them. Their motives were suspect, anyhow. I was sorry in a way, because I still strongly believed in the need to integrate design with method of construction, but as I was getting more concerned with buildings, there was another kind of integration which became important: that of structure and architecture. During the next twenty years this problem was to become of major interest to me, not forgetting, of course, to adapt the structural system to a sensible method of construction. As the firm grew, and we collaborated with more and more architects, I received through this collaboration a practical training in Architecture or at any rate in the ideas and aims of different architects which enabled us in many cases to help them realize their ambitions.
I realized that there are many conflicting architectural theories. There are also many definitions of the word architecture – but the simplest might be to use it for any building or structure which is artistically controlled. If we use this definition, then everything built by man ought to be architecture, and by implication, good architecture. But this is not the only thing, and mostly not the most important thing required of a building or structure, it must first of all serve its purpose well, it must not be too expensive, it must wear well, etc., and the difficulty is to strike the right balance between these requirements – a balance which must vary with the nature of the job and the personalities concerned. The aim should of course be to satisfy all of these aims equally well, but this is rarely possible, in most cases some of them are incompatible, and compromises have to be accepted. The difficulty is, that there are so many different people involved in the design of the same building. There ought to be only one, who knew all the answers, as was the case in the old days when building was simpler. Now we depend on teamwork, and this depends on mutual understanding and identity of aims, and very much on strong leadership and a passion for perfection which will not be satisfied with second rate solutions. It also raises endless discussions about the whole organisation of the building industry.
Now I’d like to come to yourself and the buildings you have been responsible for. I know that not one of the biggest but one that gave you the greatest satisfaction, was the footbridge at Durham University, and I know you were involved with Coventry Cathedral and with the Crystal Palace sports center. I know the next job, which I think is terribly exciting, is the new Sydney Opera House. Which of your jobs would you say have given you most satisfaction?
Well, it would be very difficult to pick from the many exciting jobs we have done over the years, and remember my part in them has only been marginal. The various architects involved have of course had the main responsibility and made the main contribution and then I owe much to my many excellent collaborators – the firm is so big now, that I only know a fraction of what goes on. But if I had to choose, I should like to pick two jobs at the opposite ends of the scale with which I was very much involved personally, the block of flats known as Highpoint, built in 1934 with Lubetkin as architect, and the little bridge at Durham which you mentioned.
Both are rather perfect examples of the complete integration of architecture, structure and method of construction. In the first case I was both engineer and contractor – or employed by the contractors – and I broke away from the traditional concrete framework which was an imitation of the steel frame and also evolved a system of jacking up the working platform and formwork which was a forerunner of later events. Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to make more use of these methods which had proved to be very successful. In the case of the Durham Bridge, completed last year, I was myself the architect and responsible for the method of construction as well – ably assisted by my own collaborators and the very excellent contractors who did the job, and we succeeded between us to produce what I think is a very satisfactory job at a remarkably low cost.
Apart from these, we are of course involved in very many jobs, the Sydney Opera House being by far the most difficult and almost too exciting.
I still hope that the result will repay the enormous effort which has gone into it.
It seems to me, that great changes are taking place in building technique and organisation. What impact, if any, have they on your work, and how are you dealing with them?
You are certainly right, these changes are our main concern. How to absorb them, use them, and yet produce good architecture. There seems to be a schism developing between the contractor or system-dominated industrialized utility buildings, and the architect-dominated prestige or unique buildings. In Sydney the design has been gradually adapted to allow a large amount of mass-production of units – in other words industrialization of a unique building. We are very much concerned with developing methods of construction – mostly involving large pre-cast units, pre-stressing and all sorts of new methods and materials – which will allow us to take advantage of modern cost-saving inventions without sacrificing architectural quality. It is still this matter of integration of all the different requirements and all the different skills which is the main problem. The building industry is not sufficiently geared to achieve this integration, and to achieve it and avoid being parochial or narrow-minded we have to concern ourselves with all the aspects of building, including sometimes roads and traffic control, town-planning and the general aims of building. After all, we are building for people, so we must try to understand people, their needs and aims and values.
Mr. Arup, you have told me about your work and you have told me about your life. You are certainly certain about your work. But I still get the impression that you are not really certain about life itself. Is this a fair comment?
Yes, I suppose it is, I am certainly not certain about anything as grand as life itself, whatever that may mean. There are, and have been, a great number of people who claim to have found the meaning of life – they belong to a great many different religions, sects, movements or schools of thought. There are even scientists who think that science will gradually enable us to solve all our problems – or at least there were. There are also people who claim to know all, or a good deal about what everybody ought to do – they know what is good and bad. Then there are people who perhaps are less prepared to generalize, but who have found personal happiness and fulfillment in life, one can perhaps say that they have found their own truth – although some seem satisfied with very little. And then there are people who perhaps have been very unhappy and have made a mess of their lives and yet have managed to give a great deal to mankind – or to be less pompous – to give joy or happiness to many other people.
Now it would be nice and simple if one could first find the truth about life, the whole explanation of how it works, how it happened, what it is in aid of, and so on, from which would follow what one ought to do with one’s life. Then one would proceed to do it and thus get personal fulfillment and make everybody else happy as well. But it isn’t quite like that. Life is complicated and mysterious, so varied, rich and marvelous, cruel and sordid, heroic or mean, it is everything under the sun. But I don’t think there is any Truth about life with a capital T. No absolute truth, not one which is available to human beings with their limited understanding. It would certainly not be a logical, scientific kind of truth, this is beyond the scope of science. And if it is a personal, directly experienced truth, it is only a truth for the one who experiences it. But this is a different kind of truth, if it exists, it seems to me that truth should be universal. Every individual is different, is unique – a fact which is sometimes forgotten by scientists and organizers who would like to treat human characteristics as material to feed into a computer. Therefore there is not one truth, not one kind of goodness.
Life is complicated and mysterious, so varied, rich and marvelous, cruel and sordid, heroic or mean, it is everything under the sun
It seems to me that one should savor and try to understand, in an artistic way, if you like, the richness and variety of life. That there are infinitely many different kinds of people, different nations, races, languages, customs and artforms, that nature is so rich and wonderful beyond belief, and also frighteningly cruel. That there are so many entirely different kinds of excellence – so many kind of good architecture, for instance, and I am afraid still more of bad – which more or less exclude each other, and which are also inextricably mixed up with all sorts of bad qualities.
Viewing this rich canvas artistically is all very well, but you have to get involved personally, and it seems to me that you have got involved, and that you have created something worthwhile, in spite of your uncertainty. How do you account for that?
Well, I am not so sure about that – or at any rate, I am not so sure it is good enough. It is not really a matter of what people think, it is a matter of what I think, and whether I have used my talents wisely, and that is quite a different matter. But you are of course absolutely right in saying, that one must be involved in life, that is the great challenge which faces everybody. I have perhaps too great a tendency to be merely contemplative, I hate in a way to commit myself until I have investigated every possible course of action or line of thought. It makes me see the other man’s point of view, which can be a good thing if it does not stifle action altogether, but it is mostly infuriating and a source of weakness.
The possibilities are so endless, what sort of excellence should one pursue? Should one study art, science, religion, politics, history and social behavior, should one train one’s body, or one’s mind, should one be a connoisseur of French wines or an Indian yogi, or lead a life of action, for the good of mankind or just enjoy life? Should one have great humility, be meek – to inherit the earth – mild, charitable, tolerant, kind, self-eff acing, or should one be intolerant of stupidity and prejudice and be ruthless in the pursuit of some idea or ideology? It is very difficult to choose. It is very difficult to be dogmatic about what one should do – it depends of course on what sort of person one is – and if one thinks too much about what sort of person one is one is quite likely to make a mess of things. I can appreciate almost any kind of excellence, even if it contains a certain amount of wickedness. For me it is almost easier to say what I don’t like. Cruelty to children, greed – in others – pompousness, cocksureness, injustice, as I see it, lack of consideration for others in others, well I don’t like to see people or animals suffer – all the usual things, for that matter.
And, come to think of it, the reason you have to become involved in life, is really the existence of other people. We are in this together, a fact which one, or I, sometimes loses sight of. You cannot shut yourself off completely from other people – there would hardly be much life left. And therefore human relations are really the most important thing in life. Hunger, illness and all kind of human suffering can be terrible, but the cruelty of one human being towards another is surely worse. And in human relations are also found the greatest possible happiness which can be felt. But – the most important? Creative thought or activity is of course also important, and for some the most important so here we go again – sorry.