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Structural Engineering Greats: Peter Rice

As one of the UK’s leading steel fabricators, we understand the immense levels of detail, commitment and skill that go into making the bones of modern architectural design. While we specialise in the design and manufacture of steel and glass products, we also appreciate the fantastic work done by designers past and present who continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

One of the most important structural engineers of the last century, Peter Rice’s works are some of the most recognisable engineering projects in the world. Here, we take a look at his life, work and why his legacy means so much to the industry.

Peter Rice’s Engineering Education

Peter Rice was born in Ireland in 1935. He grew up in rural Ulster, so had little experience with architecture or engineering as a child. However, he was an incredibly smart mathematician, which led him into studying engineering first at Queen’s University in Belfast then at Imperial College London.

The Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House roof

After University, he was taken on by Ove Arup, a Danish-English engineer who founded Ove Arup & Partners (now Arup group). Almost at the same time as Rice joined, Arup was chosen as the design engineer for the Sydney Opera House and its iconic roof, a task seen by many at the time as impossible to accomplish.

Peter Rice is credited for having done much of the geometrical work for the gull-beak roofs of the Sydney Opera House. He moved to Sydney to partner with Ian MacKenzie on the roof’s creation, but when he fell ill, Rice took majority control over the process.

The success of the Sydney Opera House not only made the career of Peter Rice but also of his employer Ove Arup. While he would work with the Danish-English engineer many times in the future, the demand for Rice’s mathematical skills and boundary-pushing ideas would see him work with various architectural greats in the future.

Peter Rice’s Other Notable Works

Centre Pompidou

The exterior of the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Rice’s next significant project also came through Arup’s engineering company. Along with architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, with whom he would partner many times, he became the engineer for the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The Centre Pompidou was (and remains) one of the most prominent examples of high-tech architecture in the world. The complex, housing libraries, museums and more, is known as an ‘inside-out’ building, with the structural engineering and pipes appearing on its exterior. The style seen in the Centre Pompidou, where art, design, creativity and functionality are all one and the same, would be synonymous with Peter Rice’s work.

Lloyd’s of London

Lloyd’s building in London, seen in a glass reflection

His most famous work in the UK would be another collaboration with Richard Rogers, this time on the famous Lloyd’s building in London’s financial centre. One of the most famous and eye-catching buildings in the area, it is another inside-out, high-tech design where engineering is at the forefront. As with the Centre Pompidou, the building’s ducts and lifts were built onto its exterior, and the two are seen as vital examples of 20th-century architecture.

Other engineering projects attributed to Peter Rice include Stansted Airport, Kansai Airport in Japan and the Mound Stand at Lord’s Cricket Ground. He is also credited for an advisory role in the creation of the Louvre in Paris.

Peter Rice’s Legacy

While Peter Rice was never an architect himself, he was one of the leading engineers in projects that blurred the line between the engineer and the architect. He was only the second engineer to be awarded one of the UK’s biggest architectural honours, the Royal Gold Medal, in 1992 – the first was the man who spotted his potential, Ove Arup.

The Modern Engineer

The Parisian skyline with the Centre Pompidou in the background

Peter Rice didn’t like the old-fashioned English interpretation of an engineer. He viewed the role as much closer aligned to the architect, not restraining them but walking by their side to explore ways of turning ideas into reality. It was this belief in the power and creativity of engineering that saw him produce some of the most notable designs of the last century.

We hope that the story of Peter Rice will help many more people understand the immense levels of passion and ability that go into structural engineering. As one of the leading steel fabrication companies in Devon, we have been fortunate enough to work on a wide range of projects for both commercial and residential properties. If you would like to know how we can help turn your project into reality, get in touch with our team today!

What other engineering greats should we feature? Join in the conversation on our social media channels or browse our blog to discover more greats, including fellow modernist Fazlur Khan.