Ove Arup
introduction  •  early education  •  Christiani & Nielsen  •  London  •  Lubetkin & Tecton  •  war years  •  consultant & partner  •  Sydney Opera House  •  Kingsgate footbridge  •  character  •  total design  •  selected works  •  sources
Christiani & Nielsen
In 1922 Arup graduated with a degree in engineering. His specialist subject was reinforced concrete. He was immediately hired by Danish civil engineers Christiani & Nielsen in their Hamburg office.
At this time, Christiani & Nielsen specialised in maritime projects and were renowned for their pioneering work in reinforced concrete. The firm's expertise was acquired first hand through Rudolf Christiani's time spent in Paris with François Hennebique (1842-1921), the man credited with introducing reinforced concrete as an exclusively structural material for above-ground structures.
Arup's time with the firm was significant in his development as a structural designer. Both partners taught him invaluable lessons in business. Working in an engineering firm that built its own designs taught him how to balance aesthetic ideals, materials and cost-effectiveness. His theoretical training was put to the test and he got a shock when he first visited a construction site and realised the extent to which practical reality is often at variance with theory.
However, Hamburg — and indeed Germany — was not a particularly comfortable place to be in the 1920s. The effects of post-World War I depression and rampant hyper-inflation made life difficult. Arup wanted to move to Paris, which seemed to hold more promise. He enlisted the help of his cousin Arne, who had been educated in England and whose parents had lived in London for forty years, in drafting a letter to Christiani & Nielsen applying for transfer to the Paris office. However, he was appointed instead to London, where he arrived in December 1923 to take up the post of chief designer.
It was during this period that Arup began to think about the relationship between architect and engineer in the design of buildings. He began applying his philosophical training to the knowledge he was acquiring. The concept he named total design started to emerge in his thoughts. However, he had as yet few colleagues with whom he could discuss the need for architect-engineer collaboration, and the prevailing culture in the British construction industry at the time still held that the 'artistic' work of the architect was wholly distinct from the 'practical' work of the engineer.
Owen Williams (1890-1969) was one contemporary who wanted to blur the boundaries between the two disciplines. In an article of 1924, Williams wrote, "The engineer and the architect have a long road to travel before their separate roles can be played by one man. But the goal may be reached more quickly by sympathetic cooperation on both sides. The engineer must realise that sound architecture is only sound engineering and architects must believe that sound engineering is the only sound architecture". Another major figure thinking along these lines was Felix Samuely (1902-59), who was to follow a similar path to Arup in this area.
Unfortunately, the first building that Arup had anything to do with was a disappointment to him and his ideal. The Labworth Café of 1932-3, sited behind a Thames river wall on the shoreline at Canvey Island in Essex, was the only exception to Christiani & Nielsen's maritime project roster and Arup functioned as its architect, engineer and contractor. Still open as a restaurant, the building is now Grade II listed.
Although the building hints at one of his main influences in its use of reinforced concrete — architect of the International Style, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) — Arup considered the building less an example of the Modern Movement, which interested him increasingly when he moved to the UK, than an example of "architecture on the cheap by an amateur architect employed by a contractor and a client with no money to spend".
In Arup's early years in London, he was a reinforced concrete expert in a country where its possibilities were poorly understood. In the early 1920s when Owen Williams encountered architect Maxwell Ayrton's approach to the material on the original Wembley Stadium project, Owen Williams found he was using concrete as a straight substitute for masonry. By 1933, he was using reinforced concrete as an expressive material in its own right for the design of the Empire Pool. Arup, with his intimate knowledge of this yet-to-be fully exploited technique and his commitment to collaboration, arrived at just the right moment to help guide the British construction industry into the next chapter in its history.
introduction  •  early education  •  Christiani & Nielsen  •  London  •  Lubetkin & Tecton  •  war years  •  consultant & partner  •  Sydney Opera House  •  Kingsgate footbridge  •  character  •  total design  •  selected works  •  sources
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photo of Ove Arup  courtesy Arup

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Ove Arup
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Labworth Cafe
Arup's first building design, Labworth Cafe (1932-3), sited on the river wall facing the Thames at Canvey Island. Its two 'wings' were originally unglazed and used as shelters.
Labworth Cafe
The Labworth Cafe has been renovated
and is still in use, although on our visit in August 2009, the lower areas were temporarily boarded up. The present window detailing is not original.
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