From Sydney to the Louvre: How Irish engineer Peter Rice built an incredible legacy

Peter Rice, second from left, helped construct buildings like the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

A new documentary shows how Irish engineer Peter Rice was involved in such iconic constructions as Sydney Opera House and the Louvre pyramid, writes Esther McCarthy.

HE’S the brilliant, gifted and world-class Irish engineer you may never have heard of. Many of the world’s most revered buildings including Sydney Opera House, the Lloyd’s Building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris were created through the innovative work of Irishman Peter Rice. But his work has not been celebrated by the wider public — until now.

Marcus Robinson’s stunning documentary, An Engineer Imagines, tells the story of Rice’s extraordinary life and untimely death. Born and raised in Dundalk, he studied in Belfast before going on to blaze a trail around the world.

“Peter Rice wasn’t out to necessarily promote his own name,” said Robinson.

“I think that’s part of what the film explores, is why the whole thing of structural engineering was seen as a tweed jacket, slightly dull thing with figures and formulae and principles. In a way what’s exciting about Peter’s story is how much he was a humanist and an artist and a poet. A Francophile, into music and just an amazing delightful human being. What we wanted the film to be was truly showing the incredible wider team effort that goes into the creation of a building. Hopefully his legacy will become better known.”

Rice was admired for pushing the boundaries of beauty and science, often through impossible-seeming and exposed structural elements.

“What is distinguishing about Peter, I think, is the fact that he cared enormously about having a human touch in structures,” added Robinson.

“One of the very defining things about the Pompidou Centre is that these beautiful cast iron structures that support the whole of the weight of the building going from side to side. They were very much a non industrial non-standard thing that was made and cast in factories by hand, pretty much.

“And you know more than ever in this particular sort of social media, strange celebrity culture we now live in, I think his life and his spirit are very much the antidote to that sort of thing. To be committed and dedicated to the integrity of your own process, your own creative process and in his case making sure that his engineering and his approach to life was of service to the wider community.”

Born in Belfast, Marcus Robinson is an artist, photographer and filmmaker who is self-taught and has worked on projects that have brought him all over the world. After studying modern languages at Cambridge University, he went to live in Paris.

“I’d always wanted to be a photographer and filmmaker, a painter, so basically I’ve just learned by doing. I worked as an architectural photographer in Paris for 16 years. Then because I loved music, in a way it was my love of electro, deep house, drum and bass, quite trippy trancy music, that I wanted to make photographic montages to music. Making time-lapse filming seemed like a natural way to do it.”

After filming some of the construction of the London Eye using the same format, a filmmaker friend helped him put a showreel together and he was commissioned by Channel 4 to make a film. “That led to making an amazing film about the construction of Larnaca airport, where I’d 13 cameras all around the site for four years.”

He moved on to the World Trade Centre, making documentaries for Channel 4 and the History Channel. It is a project that is ongoing. “Tower 2 is the last remaining building to be constructed and there’s some talk about it might be getting the go ahead sometime this year. So there’s probably another four to five years building still to go on.”

Peter Rice died from a brain tumour at just 57 in 1992, and Robinson hopes the film will introduce him to more people.

“One of the things that I hope comes through in the film, and it’s something I believe strongly in, is that the seeds of someone’s life, the spirit of someone’s life, can be very pervading and present even once they have died. And I think the way he worked with young people and had a very democratising approach, a very non-ego approach, I think those were values that in a way, were way ahead of their time.”

- An Engineer Imagines opens in selected cinemas today

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