Writing March 2014
the near, far and the in-between
(Neither Out Far Nor In Deep) 
The closest I was to Peter Rice was on the other side of a glass wall in what amounted to a gold fish bowl of an office in the basement of Norman Foster’s Office off Portland Place. That was in 1986, a much different time and place. We exchanged a glance shared by the Irish abroad finding comfort in recognising a fellow country man at distance. Maybe it was some primal recognition of genetic origins, of facial traits, or bearing or maybe it was just the tweed jacket I was sporting at the time. Nonetheless, whatever the reasons that knowing glance was as close as I would ever get to the person, a mere acknowledgment as he disappeared into the dark. Therefore unlike some of my colleagues here my knowledge of Peter is affected by distance. It is on this theme of distance that I would like to address the colloquium and to present a framework for understanding the work. Rice might even like that, or to paraphrase; “once the rules are established everything else is easy”. 
His work had already attained cult status and his name joined a litany of great Victorian Engineers; the Brunels, Paxton, Stephenson and Telford who joined those of the modern era; Ove Arup, Robert Maillart, Luigi Nervi and Frei Otto. The study of engineering genius was still part of the core curriculum of the late modernist school. The work was however mediated through a few choice magazines in an environment starved of content compared to the current overload. As architecture students we absorbed everything we could assuming that this familiarity would breed intimacy with our subject. Nothing, however, prepares you for the real thing.
 The near, far and the in-between or to use the title of the Robert Frost Poem used in the Traces of Peter Rice Exhibition Catalogue, Neither Out Far Nor in Deep
 An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice Artemis 1998
“When designing the main steel elements we had created a language of design. We had tubes in compression, solid rods in tension and cast elements for joints. Once these rules had become established everything else was easy.” P. 42
Though it seemed Peter was close in space that day in Fosters, the glass wall created a distance that no words could ford. Without those words and before his insightful memoire I was left with mute buildings. I would like to share my thoughts from that time. When you chance upon the Centre George Pompidou it assaults your senses unlike the framed image from the magazine. Gone from your thoughts is the contrasting colour against the 18th and 19th century facades, gone is the organising mantra of the vertical factory or the audacious externalised services. Instead there is this urban theatre, a grand gesture opening up a people’s plaza in front of the building’s permanent scaffolding. Before long you approach and engage viscerally with the building. Tightrope walkers and urban gymnasts hang out of tie bars and on ropes suspended between. At least this is how it felt ten years after its completion. My experience was the equivalent of undertaking an autopsy on architecture; everything was revealed; cause and effect. Nowhere could the elevation be found; eroded in favour of a dynamic composition of action and observation. Instead an all consuming logic prevailed. The building revealed a Victorian faith in the machine as the embodiment of enlightenment, a device to transport you to the future; instantaneously. However this was no brutal engagement, no mere expedient construction. Instead a hierarchy had been crafted to provide clarity to the diagram. Each logic element had its own expression, its own weight and texture; partly polished, partly matt, partly painted with some elements cast. Though obsessively factory made, there was an invitation to touch. Permission had neither been asked nor given but taken by the people. The need to reach out and touch its alien presence in the city pulled everyone closer, in the same manner you would reach out to the giant column masses of medieval cathedrals. As if to confirm their ability to hold high vast amounts of masonry I found myself similarly placing a hand on these massive columns. To be able to embrace and become part of the affirming nature of its promise is the search for the true nature of its expression that Rice spoke about.
“The search for the authentic character of a material is at the heart of any approach to engineering design.” If it were false in any way, if its material masqueraded as another all would be undone. In photographs it was impossible to ascertain this truth. In touching the thing itself it is revealed.
 An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice Artemis 1998 P. 78
However though we would desire it, much of architecture remains aloof or distant in time and space. To fulfil our ambition to understand and reveal the truth of any work requires considerable effort, funds and commitment. As a consequence, magazines and now the internet intercede to provide a simulacrum of intentions. The extensive availability of digital photography has provided a bridge to distant places but this remains stubbornly disjointed. That the work of Rice and the teams in which he has collaborated remains powerful at a distance is testament to the rigour with which the language of parts is conducted. The clarity and discipline of roles within the structure becomes a signifier of sorts for Rice’s work. Within each project the task assigned to the column, the wall, the beam, the glass, the frame are carefully described to allow them their own space within the overall concept. The overarching conceptual framework has at its heart is a permanent scaffold that was premièred in Pompidou. In the collaborative work with Renzo Piano this takes flight, literally in Kansai Airport and in de Menil where the ceiling articulation is like sheets (sails) in the wind. As it was with Utzon a singular idea holds the attention from afar, directing the attention of the observer to a few memorable images, stunningly photographed. Despite these photogenic qualities the idea manages to cross from its’ reality to the mind’s eye, even if “The sand we used was marble sand and the cement was white, which gave a sparkle to the finish of the surface,” is lost in translation.  The assured dissection of the problem and distribution of elements to a system of classification is worthy of the best of the Victorian Scientists and Engineers.
The potential there is for cacophony is arrested by the desire for dialogue. In the drawings, sketches and models the clues to the types of dialogue emerge in time to provide a platform for understanding the relevance of the work.
 An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice Artemis 1998 P. 90
It is at the nexus between concept and reality, between idea and touch that the work really excels. It is there that the dialogue between engineer and architect, between designer and builder, between client and user is resolved. The modern propensity for segregated thinking and segregated responsibilities would be more than happy to see any attempt at dialogue framed by a system of ring fenced borders where trade is embargoed. Rice attests to the fact that to him the border does not exist. I am mindful of the use of these terms coming from the territory he occupied as a young man, close to where I grew up along the border invisible in life but permanent in the minds of some. Though an internationalist he refused to be dragged across the border or worse occupy the no-man’s land as Architect-Engineer or Engineer-Architect. He steadfastly retreated from this special category of refugee instead expanding the potential of engineer to embrace a foreign language by resorting to an international language of Architecture. “I am and engineer, pure and simple.”  His efforts however provide us with a Rosetta stone made from drawing, modelling, building, testing, trying, failing and succeeding to guide us in our own endeavours. The joint is the touchstone, a fulcrum, the point around which everything rotates. Unfortunately the joint would later become festishised by impersonators. For Rice though it is the resolution of parts, it is where we come to know the man that was once glimpsed at the bottom of the garden, or in the basement office, as someone worth knowing. “Often it is the expressionism of the jointing which humanises the structures and justifies their friendly feel.”  This common human exchange is concretised in this final thing, the residue of the knowing glance, recognising similar traits, equal in our humanity, but different in contribution, where anything is possible if you only have the courage, “just courage, care and attention to detail, and above all belief and getting started.” 
 Traces of Peter Rice – Edited by Kevin Barry Lilliput Press 2012 Renzo Piano Quoting Rice P. 19
 An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice Artemis 1998 P.26
 An Engineer Imagines – Peter Rice Artemis 1998 P.126
the near, far and the in-between
(Neither Out Far Nor In Deep)
© Noel J Brady 2013
presented as part of Peter Rice Colloquium at NCAD 2013
sydney sketch: http://www.sydneycloseup.com/sydney-opera-house-facts.html
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