The greatest structural engineer of the twentieth century.


If you want to know someone go and live with them. Or at least spend some quality time in their presence. That’s what I inadvertently did with the great Irish structural engineer Peter Rice. Well not quite – but I did spend two days in one of his iconic buildings.

The new Stansted airport for London had just opened a couple of months beforehand. I was due to fly out from the airport but through a combination of delays on trains from London I missed my flight. Having time on my hand and as it was far easier back then to change flights I decided to go on standby. However it took far longer than I expected to get an alternative flight and I ended up spending nearly two days in the airport.

But there was a plus side. It meant I could really scrutinise and get to know this wonderful new building I was decamped in. It felt akin to walking around a giant ghostlike palace of whiteness. I could wander around and not see anyone for ages in certain parts of the building. Everything was pristine. It felt that in the future all airport travel would be as sublime as this. These sensations were due to the elegantly simple design of the terminal by Sir Norman Foster and also the unique qualities that his structural engineer Peter Rice brought to every building he ever worked on.

This you must remember was at a period long ago when travelling by plane was genuinely a cheap, cheerful and an enjoyable experience. It was pre-9/11 and so it was a time free from excessive airport taxes, interminable and byzantine security checks, luggage restrictions, hour-long queues and long walks to planes rather than using boarding gates. And duty free still saved you money. In short flying was often a pleasurable experience given the right airport.

Such was the case at Stansted. Back then it was fresh, out of the box, shiny and new. Flight was fun and it was freedom. Much of this sense of euphoria was induced by the building’s design and by Peter Rice’s sense of light and space. But after its launch the building was actually underutilised and often between flights surreally empty. There was some concern that it might become a beautiful but very large and costly white elephant if it could not attract airlines to fly in and out of it. The whole concept for the building was very simple and was designed to minimise clutter. To do this there were only to be a few shops and extraneous units within the centre of the building. The idea envisaged by Foster was for the terminal to be one vast airy open plan. There would be a roof, supports and glass wall. That was it. Signage was clear, distinct and precise. There were to be no irritating airport announcements of flight departures and arrivals adding to the sense of spacious calm.

Visitors used the exterior viewing deck simply to admire the sublime building and its incoming and outgoing flights. It was an attempt to hark back to an imagined golden era where flight was still seen as romantic.

Aiding this sensation was Peter Rice’s concept of a light glassy and airy space. Essentially the building is just one large rectangular concourse surrounded by simple glass wall with enormous tree-like pylons supporting the floating coffered roof. You wanted to reach up and touch that ceiling. Some of the clarity of that original design has now been lost over the intervening years as the building has been re-configured and cluttered with shops, barriers and security holding areas.

But whatever buildings Peter Rice has been involved with they seem to induce a tactile longing in the visitor. You want to stroke the famous gerberette steel joints that form the huge exoskeleton structure of the Pompidou Centre in Paris or to skateboard down that curved roof of Kansai airport in Osaka bay. You want to caress the enormous shell-like roofs of the Sydney Opera House and you cannot help but place your hand beneath the giant inverted glass pyramid in the Louvre to feel some invisible force. Rice’s ambition was always to solve exceptionally difficult structural problems in original ways but also in the most simple and elegant fashion possible. His ability to work in glass and light was without doubt his greatest gift.

To experience the genius of this unique man from Dundalk visit the Ove Arup touring exhibition at Farmleigh in Dublin.