Traces of an engineer
'Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
'Whether they work together or apart.'
Robert Frost, The Tuft of Flowers
In the last year of his life, while he was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour, Rice embarked upon the book, An Engineer Imagines. Not quite an autobiography, nor an engineering monograph, it's more of a philosophical narrative about his life and work. It was completed and published postumously.
In the book, he writes about Jean Prouvé (1901-84), describing "... a great natural engineer, untutored, unconventional ... whose understanding of materials and process was at once precise and unlimiting, enabling him to do things that a more conventional engineer would have found impossible". In many ways, Rice could have been writing about himself.
Certainly Rice was a natural engineer. However, he was far from untutored. His gift for geometry, skills in analysis and ability to research and appreciate materials made for an exceptional engineer — but his depths went much further. He was described by architect Richard Rogers (Richard George Rogers, b.1933, later Baron Rogers of Riverside) as a humanist with an inner sense of peace.
Rice's career, which was founded on his remarkable analytical abilities, embraced the engineering of a number of the greatest buildings of the twentieth century, and as it progressed, a natural talent for design was revealed. He became an inventive engineer who collaborated seamlessly with creative architects. However, his genius was grounded in his humanism and he was passionate that people shouldn't "feel alienated by the products of our industry" (RIBA Royal Gold Medal address, 1992).
Rice was well aware that people thought him 'lucky' to have been commissioned to work on so many outstanding projects. Perhaps the book is an attempt to show people just how much combined inventive rigour and soul he put into the structures. He wasn't just at the right place at the right time, there were sound intellectual reasons why architects sought him out.
That Rice was possibly better known to architects than to other engineers was consistent with his view, "that engineers work incognito ... behind the screen of others' egos". However, he believed that engineers needed identity and that they should "communicate some of the excitement of engineering". He also thought they should be known individually, since the "lack of a personality to identify with the work ... is the fundamental weakness of the engineer's position".
In both An Engineer Imagines and his RIBA Royal Gold Medal address (1992), Rice points to the usual role society assigns to engineers — "the voice of rationality and reason". He uses an analysis of the role of Iago in Shakespeare's play Othello — analysis by poet WH Auden (1907-1973) — to demonstrate this. Auden, writing in The Dyer's Hand (pub.1962), poses the argument that science destroys romantic and artistic creativity. It does it by making us constantly ask, 'Is what I'm doing reasoned and rational?'.
Iago destroys Othello's love for Desdemona with rational argument. However, Auden goes further. In the essay 'The Joker in the Pack' (in The Dyer's Hand), he likens Iago to a joker, self-contemptuous in his lack of authentic feelings or desires of his own. Rice would surely not have gone that far. However, it's notable that he wanted to use such literary sources for his analogies.
Rice certainly sympathised with people who think that a lot of modern architecture is 'cold'. His answer to this, and to the need to escape from rational absolutes, is that engineers should use their skills with materials and structure to bring warmth and tactile qualities to buildings. This he summed up in his much-quoted phrase traces de la main (hand marks), and as a concept, it led him to develop a design philosophy focused on paying attention to the detail as a way of humanising the large-scale. And he went further, arguing that "it is the honesty and immediacy in the use of its principal materials which determines [a building's] tactile quality".
As an extension of that idea, he identified a "noble" role that engineers can play, "that of controlling and taming industry". He claimed that only engineers could withstand the pressures of a building industry that having invested in the status quo, "like Iago, will use every argument to demonstrate that other choices are irrational". This makes his views sound excessively negative. Perhaps he was thinking of the difficulties faced in the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou
. On the other hand, there were many times when he worked in close co-operation with industry to achieve exceptional results, including the Pompidou Centre.
Rice wrote that "exploration and innovation are the keys”, and appreciated the works of engineers such as Robert Malliart (1872-1940), Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), IK Brunel
(1806-59) and Thomas Telford
(1757-1834) — not least for the way they used materials. However, he made a point of not supporting innovation for its own sake, it should have a "real purpose".
Discussing with Rogers the design process that lead to the forms developed for projects they worked on together, Rice and Rogers agreed that the distillation of a unique engineering concept from the objective parameters identifed is (or should be) a "fundamental aspect of [all] engineering design". Each gave rise to some form of the traces de la main that Rice so cherished, and that he was perhaps alluding to by inserting a photograph of cowslips as a frontispiece to An Engineer Imagines.
As the book's Epilogue, Rice quotes the Robert Frost (1874-1963) poem, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. Maybe the lyrical part of Rice would have us read another of Frost's poems, The Tuft Of Flowers, the final lines of which appear at the top of this page.
main reference AEI
portrait of Peter Rice