Centre Georges Pompidou
In July 1971, when architect Piano & Rogers with Ove Arup & Partners won the design competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou
(Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, or the Beaubourg) in Paris, Rice was 36 years old and living in London. He and Sylvia now had four young children, and they lived in a small terrace house in Shepherd's Bush, which would be their London home all their married lives.
Rice was working as an associate in Arups' Structures 3 group. The group was the responsibility of partner Povl Ahm (1926-2005) and it was led by Edmund (Ted) Happold (later Professor Sir Edmund Happold, 1930-96).
Happold and fellow team members Rice, Lennart Grut (b. 1941) and Michael Sergeant had collaborated with the architects to produce the winning Beaubourg competition entry — an ambitious, convention-breaking design. It hadn't occurred to anyone that they might win and now that they had, the challenges of realising the high-profile building were before them. The project would change Rice's life.
The French government, which had commissioned the competition, expected French architects and engineers to take the executive roles and the competition winners just to look after the design intentions. Happold represented Arups in the difficult and complex contract negotiations, and the president of the client body, Robert Bordaz, was pursuaded that design and execution could not be separated — Piano & Rogers and Ove Arup & Partners would execute the project.
The competition rules required the whole team to set up in Paris. Piano & Rogers did so at once. Although the engineers (reluctantly) joined them, control remained in London for the first year: Happold and Rice had other projects to work on. In 1972, influenced by the practice's experiences during the Sydney Opera House project, Ahm put pressure on Happold not to sign the contract. Piano & Rogers did sign, and Arups ended up as a subconsultant to the architect, responsible for the structural and services engineering, and the quantity surveying.
In his book An Engineer Imagines, Rice describes how sheltered they were in the early days from the lecturing and scepticism surrounding them in France — sheltered by the language barrier. He says, "I did not speak French then. As I am Irish, my less than comprehensive education had included Gaelic, Latin and ancient Greek, none of which was much use in Paris in 1971. So we learned to smile instead."
The initial members of the team were mostly new to each other. British architect Richard Rogers (Richard George Rogers, b.1933 in Italy, later Baron Rogers of Riverside) and Italian architect Renzo Piano (b.1937) had not long forged a partnership. They were joined by architect Laurie Abbott, a great draughstman. Besides Rice, three other engineers worked from Paris — Grut, Johnny Stanton and Andrew Dekany.
Happold and Ahm worked from London, with Happold commuting regularly, and the team had the technical resources of Arups to back up their engineering work. Working on the opera house, Rice had learned how to use these resources to full effect and he acknowledged the input of others.
The design of the Centre Georges Pompidou
is the result of the deliberate intention of its architects to change the relationship between culture and society. To achieve this, they pushed to extremes a number of then-current architectural ideas, such as thinking of a building as a machine and its elements as a kit of parts, and making buildings that express ongoing as-yet-unfinished processes. Much later, Piano recognised that the Beaubourg was the last great expression of 1960s design ideals.
The process of developing the competition entry had identified the basic approach — how the building occupies its dense urban site, and its functional disposition and consequent structural ideas. Three notable concepts that emerged were the proposed movable floors, the importance of the joint supporting the floors, and the use of a water-filled structure for fire protection. Now the team had to find ways to get the project built, under the sceptical gaze of their French colleagues.
Rice summed up the engineering task: "... a large, 44.8m span, carrying a heavy library, which could occur anywhere in the building". The structure had to extend right across the building, including supporting the people and services movement zones, front and back, which are outside the span. Flexibility was a key component, and a height limit of 28m was set so that it wouldn't be classified as a 'tall building' by French fire authorities, necessitating extra access requirements. Movable floors had been dropped for a number of reasons, not least because of fire regulations.
Soon after the team set up in Paris, a decision was made to use cast steel in the structural design — an interesting choice that became an obsession for Rice. Cast steel is not often used in buildings but was being widely used in the UK for offshore oil rig construction. On a 1971 trip to the site of the 1970 Osaka World Fair, Rice saw the cast steel nodes used for the giant space frame designed by Kenzo Tange and Professor Tsuboi. Happold had discussed the idea of cast nodes with Tange's partner Koji Kameya two years earlier.
For Rice, using cast steel in combination with more-usual steel elements satisfied his desire to give the huge building some personality and an element of surprise. In Sydney, he had observed the way architect Jørn Utzon (1918-2008) had brought warmth to the opera house structure by focusing on the detail, and he saw the importance of approachability in the components of a building.
However, at this point, the team had neither a workable overall structure nor any idea how to design cast steel components. The conceptual breakthrough came in 1972 with what's known as the gerberette solution, reportedly suggested by Grut. The idea was to suspend the main beams on short cantilevers, or gerberettes (in cast steel). The suspended beams achieve the main part of the spans at each floor level, and the gerberettes pick them up at each end, embracing the steel columns (at the façades) to which they are pinned, and cantilevering to span the building's movement and services zones. Solid steel rods tie the ends of the gerberettes together and to the ground.
Rice attributes the basic format of the propped cantilevers to Stanton, with help from Abbott. Design development of the complex elements took months of work by the whole team. They had to get to grips with cast steel as a material and this led to the study of fracture mechanics, which predicts the behaviour of metals under strain.
In June 1972, control of the project from Arups point of view was largely transferred to Paris, with Brian Watts as project manager, although Happold and Ahm in London maintained supervision. Happold continued his hectic schedule of commuting but he reportedly ruffled "Gallic feathers".
In July 1973, Arups asked Happold to focus on full-time control of Structures 3 — it seems Ahm had declined to respond to Happold's request for greater status but there may also have been a financial aspect, as the Beaubourg costs needed to be covered and the UK was in very deep recession. His last act in Paris was to oversee the foundation contract and the digging of the largest hole in the city.
In his place, Rice was appointed Arups' director of the Centre Georges Pompidou
, working closely with Grut, and with Gerry Clarke as project manager. Rice stopped working on other projects and was now responsible directly to Ahm, who visited weekly. According to then senior partner Jack Zunz (Sir Gerhard Jacob [Jack] Zunz, b.1923), Rice took the engineering lead and moved to France, along with services engineer Tom Barker. Rice found a small apartment in Paris' Marais district. It had little daylight and was nicknamed 'the molehole'. His family stayed in London.
Gradually, the final shape of the huge cast gerberettes fell into place based on a philosphy of expressing the forces inside the piece and the practical aspects of its manufacture and erection. All points of contact between the cast metal and other parts of the structure would be machined. The more you know about the component, the more you can 'read' it. And, just as importantly, human intervention is evident.
Tender documents were prepared for the whole structure, including the massive suspended beams, the solid ties and the columns. The latter would be centrifugally cast, their thicknesses reducing with height but with a constant external diameter. The documents were sent to the French checking authority Socotec, who queried almost every aspect, though their intervention turned out to be a positive thing in the end. The team set about methodically addressing every comment.
By this time, the background level of criticism in France was high. The language barrier still sheltered the team somewhat but the construction industry was very aware of it — and party to it. When the tender results came back, the non-French contractors withdrew and the French ones combined to propose an alternative structural solution. However, Nippon Steel in Japan and Krupp in Germany contacted the team to indicate that they could manufacture the components, including the cast steel elements.
Bordaz had confidence in the team, and in 1973 a contract was signed with Krupp, who, with the Saarbrücken foundry Polig Heckel & Bleihart, immediately set to work. But early in 1974, the first casting test failed, followed by the second, and then a beam node at half its design load. By that time 45 gerberettes had been made.
Investigations revealed difficulties over design codes — Krupp's engineers had ignored the specification to follow the British code based on steelwork designed for the oil platform industry. Communication was difficult but eventually a German university professor versed in fracture mechanics pursuaded Krupp's engineers to listen. The pieces already made were saved by heat treating them.
Rice loved the gerberettes and when the first one was due on site, the whole family came to Paris to witness its arrival. The road was closed off and they got there very early. In 2012, son Kieran, who says he was about ten at the time, recalled that it took all day for that first piece to be erected.
The design of rest of the structure had fallen into place, following the structural language the team had developed — steel tubes in compression, solid members in tension and cast elements for the joints. And now, too, the team was taken seriously and the level of criticism fell away. Rice had had intensive language lessons and was proud that he could speak French.
In May 1974, Président Pompidou died. His successor demanded that two floors be removed. Rice was on a camping holiday with his family at the time the request was made and was forced to return to Paris from Normandy. But the project had gone too far for such a change. Construction was completed on schedule in January 1976.
Architect Renzo Piano and Rice bonded over the design development of the Centre Georges Pompidou
. Rogers has described Piano's enjoyment of working on precise logical problems and Piano's interest in the structure of the Beaubourg. He also described Rice as articulate, diplomatic, an able strategist and optimistic.
Although the project dominated the Rogers & Piano practice, they did work on other buildings, including the design of the nearby IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) project, which was completed before the Beaubourg opened officially. However, Mike Dowd, who was working for them at the time, said that though they respected each other, Rogers and Piano were falling out. Bourdaz thought Rice should be the go-between, recognising him as key to getting the project finished.
According to Zunz, Rice started off "a very bright, intelligent man, finding out in his mid-thirties that he was a designer with a capital D." Working with great architects was making its mark. Rogers and Piano have both pointed to his crucial role on the Beaubourg, and he would go on to collaborate with Piano on a series of major projects, where his contribution would extend to almost all aspects. But he also cemented his relationship with Rogers and they were soon to work together again.
Rice, now at second-tier director level at Ove Arup & Partners, would stay with the practice all his working life, becoming a director of the Ove Arup Partnership Board (equivalent to the current Group Board) in 1984. However, he had Zunz's backing to involve himself in other partnerships and projects outside the practice, which Zunz saw as the way to keep him at Arups.
Years later, in an internal practice lecture, Rice pointed to the Beaubourg's cast steel challenges as opening up avenues for the exploration of other materials. Together with a series of collaborators, including great architects, in the coming years the now-confident Rice would explore the properties and possibilities of concrete, glass, polycarbonate, ferro-cement, ductile iron, fabrics and stone.
main reference AEI
portrait of Peter Rice