With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.
The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.
You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*
But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**
I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***
Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.
It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.
*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.
**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.
***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).