Ove: the character
Ove Arup made distinct and varied impressions on the people who knew him. On one hand he was an ever-smiling, gregarious, spontaneous, philosophical person who was passionate about nature, truth and aesthetics in work and life. On the other, he could be stubborn, overly self-analytical, outspoken, childlike and eccentric. He felt himself a misfit in a foreign country for much of his life.
John Scott (the author's grandfather), who worked for Arup, was one of those who found him difficult. The author's grandmother, however, describes him as tall, charming and eccentric, with a brilliant sense of humour. He was known by his staff as kind, remarkably clever and a rich source of anecdotes and stories.
He was an outright perfectionist who was also renowned for not finishing his sentences. He was bursting with ideas and would often suddenly withdraw his pencil from his breast pocket (which also housed his extra long chopsticks for poaching food from the plates of others) and pour brilliant sketches onto tablecloths and scraps of paper.
Despite his own gloom about himself, Arup was a much-loved and admired figure among his peers. His wide circle of friends and colleagues included some of the world's most influential designers, builders and thinkers. His work, and that of his partners and the firms they founded, has been showered with awards and acknowledgement at the highest level. In 1953 he was made a Commander of the British Empire and in 1971 he received a knighthood for services to architecture and engineering.
Although sensitive to the changes in architecture and engineering that were occurring between the wars and later, he was not a typical engineer of his time. In spite of personal, cultural and ideological clashes and conflicts with individuals, methods and traditions, he continued to pursue his goal of making a bridge between architect and engineer.
A constant doodler, he also kept up a continual stream of personal writings for more than 70 years in the form of diaries, letters and lecture notes. Among the archived letters are those between Arup and his secretary of fifteen years, Ruth Winawer. "Did you drop any frightful bricks?" she once wrote in a response to a letter he sent to the office after speaking at Harvard. Winawer knew him well and goes on to reveal what his staff think of him: "I'm sure you are by now aware of the attitude of mingled pride and alarm noticeable in your devoted staff when you rise to your feet to utter in public. I think it is rather like having a brilliant but unsubdued child, who from time to time seems to take a certain pleasure in setting the cat among the pigeons, as the phrase goes."
Winawer's understanding is all the more poignant when one considers the role of his wife at social gatherings. Where he trod on English primness by discussing taboo subjects, his wife was caught midway between adhering to social proprieties and remaining dutiful to her husband.
At work, although he experienced a sense of alienation and conflict, Arup's fervent views on art, politics, humanity and science, expressed in his speeches as well as his generosity, were adhered to long after his death. During the last decades of his life, he was to increasingly became a kind of mythical hero as the company grew beyond him and expanded worldwide.
His approach to life was both serious and playful, embracing a determination towards truthfulness in design and a challenge to the values of the past.
main reference OA
photo of Ove Arup