Michael Powell


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Scripture & Practice 8





The main sources of this paper are: ‘Ove Arup Philosophy of Design: Essays 1942-1981’ edited Nigel Tonks, published Prestel Verlag, 2012, and the Letters of Paul to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible



First, a definition of resonance: ‘Condition or quality of being resonant’ and, in particular, ‘sound produced by a body vibrating in sympathy with a neighbouring source of sound’. (www.collinsdictionary.com)


It was, if I recall correctly, the winter of 1967-68. I was working for the Chartered Institute of Building. It was our turn that year to be the host institution for the Joint Building Group, a winter discussion forum for the senior members of the professional bodies for builders, architects, engineers and surveyors. The very un-senior me was asked to be secretary to the group. In return for looking after the Group’s chores, after each meeting at University College, London I was invited to join our President and the normally two guest speakers for dinner. One evening, one of our guests was the eminent structural engineer Sir Ove Arup (1895-1988). To be round a table of four with him was for me quite something. What he spoke about that evening in his address or round the dinner table I don’t recall, but I guess it was on one of the profound themes that he explored over many years and which figure in the collection of essays, lectures, talks, articles and interviews which have been gathered together around the idea of the Philosophy of Design.

As I have looked back on that meeting with Ove Arup and mulled over this collection of his writings, I have tried to listen out for sounds of the Bible, on the face of it an odd thing to do because he side-stepped – but did not rule out – what he regarded as the untestable certainties of religions. I sense that in his lifelong searches, richly evidenced in this book, for meaning, truth, goodness, duty, spiritual quality, beauty, practicality, functionality and simply the enjoyment of creative work and living, he has a very great deal in common with some of the thinkers, searchers and followers to be found amongst the religious, not least the Christian religious.

The Biblical, Christian voice that I find most resonant with Arup, is that of the apostle Paul, particularly his epistles to the new Christian communities in Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae. Paul has found his Jewish inheritance and his Roman citizenship to be as nothing compared with his newly discovered and overwhelming Christian faith. Not even prison can take away the sheer fulfilment and joyfulness that has been given to him, starting with his blinding conversion experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-9). In the course of his letters he says things, or says things in such a way, that resonate with Ove Arup’s marvellously open-minded, worldwide approach to building, engineering and business life. This is not to say that Arup and Paul agree because on many fundamentals they don’t. But I find that each of them in his time and in his way inspires me in my own searches for what it means to go on seeking the unity and cohesion at the heart of both man’s work of building and God’s gifts of faith.  

Roads to Damascus

At the end of this collection of his writings, we find Arup pondering ‘… religion, God creating the world in 7 days, the Trinity, the Holy Ghost...’. He believes that ‘that meant something’, ‘but what?’ he goes on to ask. The path for him did not lie in the study of academic theology, from the myths of Genesis to the mysteries of Trinitarian Christianity. Rather, he says, ‘I wanted to find out how things worked, what was behind it all. It was a quest for Truth, truth with a capital T. And parallel with that, there was this business of good and bad. To be truthful was good, but it was difficult to be good… to give others what one valued most. And the foundation of ethics, was it just God’s will? I would have my own ideas about what was good. But why? I had to find out… Science was the search for truth. But on what was science founded? ... That was where philosophy came in. There was no doubt in my mind, I had first to study philosophy’. (p219)

So for the next three or four years Arup did, he says, study philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. He did not find absolute truth anywhere but what he did get out of it was ‘a conviction that absolute truth does not exist … it is an unending quest’. ‘Science’, he said on another occasion, ‘can do amazing things, but it is just a tool, it cannot explain ‘God’, whatever that means’. How we live is just as important a matter as what we find to be true, ‘… ethics cannot be founded on logic or science either. The many attempts to rationalise ethics have failed’. (p220)

In these undated notes, maybe from early life or late, he continues ‘…we have got to live this life. We must know what we live for. A much advertised way to solve this problem was to have ‘faith’. But there are so any faiths. My system revolted against having faith in something I couldn’t believe in… All I can do, or rather try to do, is to live in the way that I feel right, without having the assurance that what I think is the only right way to think’. (p220)

Then comes Arup’s equivalent to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, ‘So I quit philosophy and went over to civil engineering. I had to be involved in something. Something practical, creative … in contact with people’. (p 220) Put another way, ‘Truth evades us but we can make things, and if what we make is good, we feel good, and I knew I could become a good engineer’. (p207)

Paul too had a problem with philosophy. He warns the Colossians, ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ’. In his view, not only philosophy but pettifogging constraints must be cast off, ‘If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as though you still belonged to the world? Why do you summit to regulations… they are simply human commands and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom but they are of no value.’ Colossians 2: 8, 20-23  

Crumpets, Canvey Island and Coventry Cathedral

Paul’s commitment expressed above is to wisdom. Arup was to search for it and, I think, to a great extent find it through the worldwide and lifelong practice of structural and civil engineering. After graduating in civil engineering, he tells us that he ‘Applied for a job with Christiani and Nielson, a well-known firm of engineers and contractors who had been the first to introduce reinforced concrete to Denmark and who had branches in many countries. I was offered a job in Hamburg where I certainly learnt how to design quay walls and all sorts of marine structures’. After some two years he came to London and stayed ten years, ‘Coming to England was certainly a big change… big coal fires in the waiting room at Harwich, London pea-soupers, tea and crumpets. I felt rather lost but then met a Danish girl. That changed my life and we got married in 1925. I am very grateful for what I learnt in my twelve years stay with this firm, first in Hamburg and then in London…’ (p84)

Possibly for many people early experience consists in part of really discovering the problems and difficulties at first hand. Arup tells us:  

The first building [as opposed to marine structures] I had anything to do with was a small café and shelter built just behind the river wall in Canvey Island [Essex] in 1932 or 33 by Christiani and Nielson, specialists in the design and construction of reinforced concrete. I was employed by them as their chief engineer in their London office. I functioned both as architect, engineer and contractor – but was severely restricted by lack of funds and lack of architectural training. [The design] couldn’t be simpler, and was certainly cheap – and, I am afraid, almost certainly rather nasty. Anyway the one time I was allowed to visit the job – my place was in the office – I was depressed by the shoddiness of the metal windows, the finishing to the concrete, and poor materials and bad detailing to other elements.

‘The moral of it all?’ he goes on to asks, ‘That architecture on the cheap by an amateur architect employed by a contractor, and a client with no money to spend, is not a good way in which to achieve perfection’. (p191) The path to unravelling the problems lay through in his own practices, set up in 1946 for engineering and for architecture in 1970.

One day, he thought, ‘To create anything good of its kind would give satisfaction’ – from a joiner making a good table. (p83) to architects and engineers designing Coventry Cathedral. At Coventry, Arup explained in 1962, ‘the emphasis is on aesthetic quality… The problem is not just to design an efficient and economical roof spanning 80ft. It is to create a visual impact, to create an abstract sculpture if you like. If it were not for the demands imposed by the aesthetic or symbolic requirements, there would hardly be any structural problem at all’. (p68)

Finding the best way to do this involved patient searching. ‘To span a roof 80ft can be done in a hundred different ways. The design of the canopy has gone through many stages as the architect – aided and abetted by the engineers – worked untiringly for some years to find the form that would satisfy him. [After much exploration], the canopy now appears as a free-standing framework of ribs and columns, complicated by the fact that the ribs pursue a somewhat angular course up and down, which never goes from column to column, but, proceeding diagonally from a column always ends up on the other side between two columns’. (p69)

On another occasion, he put it like this, ‘Art, as the Danish author Piet Hein has stressed, is solving problems which cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The search goes on until a solution is found, which is deemed to be satisfactory. There are always many possible solutions, the search is for the best – but there is no best, just more or less good. Quality is produced by the search, which continues until no better solution can be found…. All this applies to engineering design as well as architectural design. (p179)

Paul uses the imagery of space, ‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length, and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’. While the engineer searches, the theologian opens himself to the fullness that he believes is there. Ephesians 3: 18-19

Arup picks up the concept of space in this way, ‘I see the architect’s job as essentially the spatial organisation of things to serve human needs and aspirations. That means that he must be an expert on space, on human needs and on their relationships…. To contain and utilise the forces of nature is predominantly the engineer’s domain, and the architect must accept the spatial consequences of such functions. The architect’s domain is the human aspect. He must soften the edges of ‘technocratic space’ to make it bearable or preferably enjoyable for human beings’. (p171)

Humanity, design and spirituality

Arup has now brought us to one of his greatest themes, the centrality of humanity, of people, in building design. Central, yes, but never the only aim in design. (p220) It falls within the field of quality. ‘In the sphere of practical thinking, then, what I believe in is to be involved in what you do to strive for quality. But when it comes to building, what exactly is quality? It is a composite quality that we must seek, the best possible compromise between conflicting aims. We must never forget that we are building for people.’(p220)

Other allusions to the need for quality-directed collaboration include these:

·      Each designer should be good at his own subject, for a failure on any part can spoil the whole thing, but the excellence which should be pursued by all is the excellence of the whole. The judicious allocation of priorities is the job of the leadership.  

·      What we need is a combination of the integrity of the engineer with the vision, sense of beauty and human understanding of a good architect. We need what architecture stands for, more than ever. Humanity must win the battle for control. (p171) 

Arup sees a model in the natural world for what needs to be aspired to in building design. In addition to its materiality design is shot through with the search for spirituality:

Everything in nature hangs together in various ways, and the same applies to the artificial world of human creation. In our building activity we are mainly interested in three such relationships:

1)    The relationship of part and whole

2)    That of means and ends, and

3)    What I might call the spiritual relationship between inanimate objects, usually thought of as aesthetic, though I don’t think this word covers it entirely

The last is a very difficult relationship or quality to define, describe or manipulate – but is of the greatest importance. (p152)

Elsewhere Arup expands on his idea of spirituality: ‘And this spiritual quality, which can neither be defined nor created according to a formula or recipe, but which can contribute so much to our happiness, this quality is the result of personal involvement, of enthusiasm. And of many other things as well, but enthusiasm must be the impelling force’.  (p156)           

Spirituality and practicality go together and must never eclipse each other: ‘And the emphasis on the spiritual quality and the preoccupation with architectural theories in architectural schools sometimes made pupils forget about how their beautiful drawings were to be transformed into real buildings… Now, in the Modern Movement … everything made by man for man’s use has to be designed. And in all these spheres dedicated engineers are trying to conjure forth that mystical spiritual quality which is the essence of art’. (p155)

Paul, too, has a deep sense of spirituality and mystery woven into the plans and fabrics of our lives on earth as much as in any heaven we might imagine: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing… With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’. Ephesians 1: 3, 8-10

Organisational structures

Large and complex buildings require large and complex organisations to design and build them and such organisations group themselves into professions and industries and adopt patterns of contractual relationship, which at times can obstruct the very purposes they exist to achieve.

Of his early experience, Arup said: ‘[In Denmark] Christiani and Nielson preferred to design their own jobs but this was not the accepted practice in England where there was a sharp distinction between the consulting engineers and the contractors, the professional people bound by a code of honour and those working for profit. There is no doubt about it, the design which we came across was often shockingly bad. And it is kind of frustrating, when you know that you could save the country thousands of pounds not to be allowed to do anything about it … I think that many of my best designs lie buried in the files of Christiani and Nielson’.(p85)

Elsewhere he further laments, ‘The whole situation is extremely confused with institutions, charters, societies and other bodies proliferating, but never dying. Unity is extolled, apartheid practised’. (p183)

Nowhere is confusion and need of new understanding greater than in the relationship between the design of a building or structure and its cost. Arup states categorically, ‘If we want quality, at least of a spiritual kind, we must master the economy of construction. All the many economic units, professional firms, builders, manufacturers etc are in business to make money. Collaboration therefore collides with competition. The gap between design and execution is almost unbridgeable, preventing the designers from obtaining first-hand knowledge of the cost of various means of construction. The prevailing system of quantity surveying only makes matters worse. These over-elaborate bills of quantities are a clumsy method of defining the contractor’s obligations, which can be better done by drawings and specifications’. (p158).

In strong comments such as this we can hear Arup doing what Paul, in a different context, says must be done – the truth must be spoken in love between the various participants in the task and calling:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come…  to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ… Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him from whom the whole body is joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Ephesians 4: 11-13, 15-16

While unity and coherence are Paul’s goals, buildings are his metaphor: ‘For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace…  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are…, members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God’. Ephesians 2: 14-22

A key issue in organisations is that of training. Arup reflects: ‘Presumably, man will continue to build, and the great majority of the many people who will take part in this activity will have to be trained for their roles. This training is not first and foremost an academic but a vocational training. The two kinds, if they could be defined, would no doubt overlap. But the usefulness of the training must be judged by whether it fits the student for the job he will have to do or – since this is only vaguely known – whether it fits him to do a useful job in the sphere of building. This leaves the question of what is useful entirely open’. (p169)

In Paul’s way of thinking, vocation is enhanced by the idea of ‘calling’. ‘I, therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling’. Ephesians 4: 1,4


Arup’s work is frequently concerned with ethical values, issues and questions. A basic ethical matter is what to build and what not to build. He poses the question, ‘To know how to build is all very well, but to build what?’  And he answers:

I don’t hold with the view that you can’t – as long as there is anybody in the world starving or not having a house you are not allowed to build a theatre or a monument. That’s going too far. People need that kind of thing. They need a bit of uplift and they need an inspiration. And they need something which is good and which is marvellous for all of them. You are doing more than just building this thing. It’s a spiritual thing. It is a spiritual thing to have this sort of example of perfection, which will be classified as one of the great buildings of the world. Our whole mental atmosphere would be different if we hadn’t got the Parthenon and all these big buildings – if they’d all been just hundreds of millions of families who all had a nice house and were all happy, but there would be nothing to know and talk about. (p114)  

We know that Paul visited Athens. He might even have had the Parthenon in mind when he wrote to the Philippians, ‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’. Philippians 4:8

Again, perhaps with Greece in mind, Arup wrote, ‘I do not share Plato’s belief in the possibility of government by philosopher-kings… Instead of master-minds we have just the average imperfect individuals. And the idealistic urge to create better conditions for mankind has to compete with common or garden greed, vanity, laziness and stupidity’. (p124) Whatever our limitations, ‘We must take an ethically critical look at the brief [for a project], make it more comprehensive. We must look beyond the narrow object and ask ourselves: What will be the consequences? What about the working conditions for those who carry out the work, including their spiritual well-being; will the work provide useful employment or cause unemployment – perhaps in other countries. What effect has it on other industries? What is the cost in scarce resources? We must ask ourselves what would happen if everybody else did what we do. Would that serve humanity?’ (p189)

It is interesting that Arup mentions spirituality here in relation to the well-being of the work force. Previously, as we have seen, he has related spirituality to aesthetics and the sensitivities and humanity of design. These are complementary components of a practical spirituality. Unfortunately, at least in this collection of papers, Arup does not open up a full discussion of spirituality and built environment.

On the point of working conditions and relationships, Paul addresses the contemporary practice of slavery. Whether it is or is not an acceptable principle in a particular culture, in practice it involves fairness, duty and justice, ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not your masters… Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you have a Master in heaven’. Colossians 3:22 – 4:1

Arup believes in flexible and adaptable moral principles which can be developed according to time, circumstances and the people involved. In what became known as his 1970 Key Speech to senior colleagues he said:

‘Who am I to tell you and the firm what to think and feel in the future when I am gone – or before that?  It wouldn’t do any good my trying to lay down the law and I haven’t the slightest inclination to do so. That is my difficulty. I dislike hard principles, ideologies and the like. They can do more harm than good. And yet we cannot live life entirely without principles. But they have in some way to be flexible, to be adaptable to changing circumstances. What needs to be defined is our attitude. Where to draw the line in border cases depends on who you are, what life has taught you, how strong you are. In the following thirteen points I am grappling with this question, perhaps not very successfully. I give them to you now:

1.    Some people have moral principles.

2.    The essence of moral principles is that they should be lived

3.    But only saints and fanatics do follow moral principles always

4.    Which is fortunate

5.    Are then moral principles no good?

6.    It appears we can’t do without them

7.    It also appears we can’t live up to them

8.    So what?

9.    A practical solution is what I call the star system

10. The star, or ideal, indicates the course. Obstacles in the way are circumnavigated but one gets back on the course after the deviation

11. The system is adopted by the Catholic Church. Sins can be forgiven if repented – it doesn’t affect the definition of good or evil

12. That this system can degenerate into permanent deviation is obvious

13. One needs a sense of proportion (p164)

One notes the use of the symbol of the star in items 9 and 10. Paul too uses the symbol of the star for all that guides and challenges, ‘Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation in which you shine like stars in the world… I am glad and rejoice with all of you – in the same way also you must be glad and rejoice with me’. Philippians 2: 14-15, 17-18

While Arup’s direct reference in item 11 to Catholic doctrine is unusual for him, it is a reminder that his mind is not closed to the concepts of religion. They are part of the wide scenarios with which he works.

So much is about searching and trying to find out what it may be best to do in any given situation. Arup reminds us, ‘We are forgetting that people, or human relations, are the most important things in life. No theory, no ideology, no set of rules can deal with human complexity, human sensitivity or vulnerability. This is something I somehow know, perhaps this is the real truth. But to turn this truth into a precept for living is not easy… Reflection, even understanding, is no substitute for compassion. But you could say perhaps that I believe in trying’. (p220)

Arup’s twin motifs of finding out, searching, trying, and compassion are just as clear in Paul:

Live as children of the light. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.  Ephesians 5: 10  and

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other... And above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Colossians 3: 12-15

Balancing Paul’s concept of the one body in which everything is bound together, is Arup’s delight in variety: [I believe] there is not one truth, one kind of goodness. It seems to me one should savour and try to understand, in an artistic way if you like, the richness and variety of life. That there are infinitely many different kinds of people, different nations, races, languages, customs and art-forms, that nature is so rich and wonderful beyond belief, and also frighteningly cruel. That there are so many different kinds of excellence – so many kinds of good architecture for instance, and I am afraid still more of bad….’ (p90)

The echo comes back again and again from Paul: ‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’. Philippians 4:8

Arup continues: ‘The possibilities are so endless. What sort of excellence should one pursue? Should one study art, science, religion, politics, history and social behaviour? Should one lead a life of action for the good of mankind or just enjoy life? Should one have great humility, be meek – to inherit the earth – mild, charitable, tolerant, kind, self-effacing or should one be intolerant of stupidity and prejudice and be ruthless in the pursuit of some idea or ideology? It is very difficult to choose’. (p90)

However hard the choices may be, the most basic principle, Paul reminds us, is: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus’. Philippians 2: 3-5

End or beginning?

Arup often revisits the beginning of his journey: ‘Then there was this business about religion and about the ultimate purpose of the whole thing. And naturally one found out that science wasn’t everything. The main thing was to find out what you – what you really had to do here on this planet. I mean why are you here- what’s the whole thing about and so on? I would say that the transition from science to philosophy is very natural… [But] the transition from starting philosophy then taking up engineering, that’s quite a different matter – that’s an irrational thing… that’s because I got fed up with philosophy, I realised that philosophy could not give the answer to all these questions which mankind has asked since the beginning of days’. (p109) As we have seen, the practice of engineering brought, if not always direct answers, rich insights and wisdom in which we are able to share.

In his letter to Colossae, Paul mentions various friends and colleagues by name: Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother. Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas. Epaphras, who is one of you, greets you – he has worked hard for you. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you… And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord’.

Arup, I think, might ask each of us what we have discovered about our purpose on the planet and Paul may say to us as he said to Aristarchus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received…’



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