Best known as the founder of the company that bears his name, Ove Nyquist Arup was a revolutionary in all areas of life. Today he is known as one of the great masterbuilders of the 20th century, but he was also an avid writer, philosopher and political crusader. His character was that of an “endlessly doodling, whimsically rhyming, cigar-waving, beret-wearing, accordion squeezing, ceaselessly smiling, foreign sounding, irresistibly charming, mumbling giant,” Peter Jones wrote in the introduction to his book, Ove Arup: Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century.
Arup was born in Newcastle, England, in 1895, to a Norwegian mother, Mathilde Bolette Nyquist, and Danish father, veterinary surgeon Jens Simon Johannes Arup. When Arup’s father lost his job in England due to a ban on live cattle imports, the family, consisting of Jens, Mathilde, young Ove, and three older half-siblings, moved to Hamburg, Germany.
By 1907, Arup’s father retired to Denmark, and Ove was sent to a progressive boarding school, the Sor Academy in Denmark. In 1913, he began studying philosophy at Copenhagen University, and in 1918 started his studies in engineering at Copenhagen Polytechnic, specializing in reinforced concrete. He remained an outspoken philosopher and an avid writer for his entire life, not only publishing countless reports and papers, but also keeping a journal of his personal thoughts.
In 1922, Arup began work with a Danish firm in Hamburg, Christiani & Nielsen, quickly moving to their London office as chief engineer in 1923. On Aug. 13, 1925, Arup married Ruth Srensen, known as “Li.” The couple would go on to have three children.
Jones writes, “The practice in England in the 1920s was to observe a sharp distinction between the consulting engineers, who designed a project and served the client, and the contractors, who worked for profit. Christiani & Nielsen, although they were contractors, preferred to design their own jobs, and this undoubtedly influenced Ove’s subsequent thought and practice.” Christiani & Nielson’s specialty in reinforced concrete was not well understood by the public, further adding frustration to the weight Arup often felt by the constraints of a firm and the priorities of the contractors who opposed his aesthetic creativity.
In 1935, Arup joined J.L. Kier & Co., as director responsible for designs and tenders. He felt better able to express his creative tendencies at this firm. The group went on to design Highpoint I and II, a revolutionary high rise block of flats that Arup was not satisfied with, the Gorilla House and Penguin Pool at the London Zoo, and many others. During this time he also became close with modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin.
In 1935, Arup became a member of the executive committee of the MARS Group. This membership was a great asset later on to the success of his future company. According to Jones, “The key was Ove’s membership of the MARS Group, as he explicitly acknowledged. He was, indeed, the only engineer in the group but, more significantly, he was almost unique among engineers for his genuine interest in architecture.”
Living in Surrey, England, during WWII, Arup was a passionate advocate for better bomb shelter design, and published a number of papers on the subject. Most of his recommendations were not considered, most say for political reasons. Arup participated in the design of the Mulberry temporary harbors used during D-Day landings.
Before and after WWII, Arup took part in numerous discussions with social reformers and scientists. Melding his philosophical and engineering interests, Arup said in Jones’ book, “Good building is still practical building… If the Architect cannot himself use a slide rule, and if he cannot make a quantitative cost analysis of alternative planning solutions, he is in danger of losing touch with the foundation of practical facts, on which alone his Art can flourish.”
In 1946, with only £10,000 in start-up capital, Arup founded his firm, one of the leading global engineering firms of the 20th century. Going from just a few thousand pounds in the first year, by 1988, the year of Arup’s death, the firm was making over 100 million. Initially, the firm was known as the Ove N. Arup, Consulting Engineers, and in 1949, Ove Arup & Partners was formed with Ove Arup, Ronald Jenkins, Geoffrey Wood, and Andrew Young as partners. “Ove always proclaimed that the identity and character of the firm depended entirely on its people. They implement or amend the tenets and values of the operation, but there are no guarantees of success,” Jones said.
Just like any revolutionary idea, the firm underwent several iterations. In 1963, together with the architect Philip Dowson, Arup Associates was formed to offer multi-disciplinary architectural and engineering services. In 1970, the firm was reformed as Ove Arup & Partners. At this time, Arup delivered “The Key Speech,” outlining values and a future vision for Arup.
He said in the speech: “If we can reach a stage where each man or woman is respected for the job they do, and is doing his or her best because the atmosphere is right, because they are proud of what we are and do and share in the general enthusiasm, then we are home.”
Today, Arup’s core values maintain the vision established in this key speech.
Arguably Arup’s most iconic project was his engineering work for the Sydney Opera House. Started in 1957, the Australian landmark took 16 years to complete. In addition to unusual materials and a groundbreaking form, the project was also fraught with political strife and turmoil between the architect, Jrn Utzon, and Arup. Still, according to the Sydney Opera House website (www.sydneyoperahouse.com), “Design and construction were closely intertwined. Utzon’s radical approach to the construction of the building fostered an exceptional collaborative and innovative environment.”
Participation in a project where “construction of the shells was one of the most difficult engineering tasks ever to be attempted,” according to the Sydney Opera House literature, gave Arup and his firm a lasting notoriety.
The Sydney Opera House was not Arup’s most prized project. He personally supervised the design and construction of Durham’s Kingsgate Bridge in 1963, and was so attached to the project that he had his ashes scattered from it following his death in 1988. According to Jones, “He drifted into and out of consciousness in his last months. On 5 February 1988 he suddenly awoke: sat up: looked around: and died.”
Today, Arup’s namesake firm continues to survive and prosper. He also left behind more than 60 years of writings, encouraging everyone to strive for excellence, embrace change, and, “Enhance prosperity and the quality of life.”
Christina M. Zweig is a contributing editor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.