Saturday, February 23, 2019

An Engineer Imagines – celebrating the life and work of cross-disciplinary structural engineer Peter Rice, educated at QUB and underpinning buildings around the world (Queen’s Film Theatre)

The Paris landscape is distinctive among European cities given the lack of skyscrapers overshadowing its central district. One of my favourite trips in Paris is to take the RER A out to La Défense and wander past the fountains and along the airy walkways surrounded by chunky tower blocks to reach La Grande Arche at the far end. Looking four kilometres east back towards the city centre you should just be able to make out the Louvre courtyard in the distance through the far side of the Arc de Triomphe.

Over in the north-east of the city, Parc de la Villette offers an alternative to artsy Paris with a decommissioned submarine, a mirrored geodesic dome with a cinema inside and the Cité des Sciences museum with five levels of exhibitions and hands-on demonstrations. You could get lost in it for days.

Until watching An Engineer Imagines, I had no idea that these sites were all linked together by Belfast-trained structural engineer Peter Rice. The engineer spent much of his career at Ove Arup, working with architect Richard Rogers, finding ways to make exotic designs buildable. The Pompidou Centre in Paris is held up by the system his team developed. He spent years working on the geometrically-challenging Sydney Opera House.

The 32m-tall glass walls at Cité des Science were the first structural walls to be constructed without framing or supporting fins. The system developed is widely used today, but Rice found a way of making it happen first. His hand was on the glass pyramids in the Louvre. Later the film comes to London and his work on Lloyd’s building is revealed.

Italian architect Renzo Piano says that Rice could “design structures like a pianist who can play with his eyes shut”, going on to add that “he understands the basic nature of structures so well that he can afford to think in the darkness about what might be possible beyond the obvious.”

The film uses timelapse photography and old ciné film footage of buildings Rice worked on to show off his creations, celebrating the different aspect ratios and frame rates and weaving them together with voiced reflections from his own autobiography and interviews with architects and other colleagues to shine a spotlight on the engineer who worked from the shadows. Despite not becoming a household name – he’s described as “a thinker rather than a talker” – he was recognised within by his peers, only the second engineer to be awarded a gold medal for architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Yet this beautiful tribute to the engineer reveals his skill at bring different skillsets together to collaborate across disciplines and design solutions – exercising “soft power” and applying design expertise as well as engineering knowhow to find new ways to challenge conventional thinking. His colleagues speak as warmly as his family who disclose how he coped with his terminal brain tumour – he died aged 57 – and rediscovered his faith while working on Cathedrale Notre Dame de la Treille in Lille.

Filmmaker Marcus Robinson ties the narrative together with Rice’s most quirky project, an outdoor theatre in southern France lit only by moonlight. The modern building porn imagery is replaced with a hand-fashioned paraboloid and all manner of mirrored structures used to collect, focus and throw the light of the full moon onto an amphitheatre stage. La Théâtre de la Pleine Lune is a mad-cap eccentric passion project of French opera director Humbert Camerlo, but one in which Rice was intellectually invested, opening it up as the venue for a family celebration before his death.

An Engineer Imagines is a beautiful tribute to an ingenious dreamer whose inspirational talent and unorthodox approach is superbly portrayed to a non-specialist audience in this locally-produced documentary. Rice’s qualities are gently expressed through the film’s own editing decisions and format.

Documentaries can be bland and worthy. An Engineer Imagines instead delivers a stimulating and satisfying 80 minutes. Find out for yourself by heading along to Queen’s Film Theatre for a screening followed by a Q&A with the director on Tuesday 26 February at 6pm or wait until it returns between Friday 8 and Friday 15 March and a final screening on Saturday 23 March.

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