Here Dowson recalls his first meeting with pioneering engineer Ove Arup, and how the two of them went on to form one of the most significant architectural alliances in recent history: Arup Associates.
“The subject of my final year thesis and degree show was on the ‘problems of permanence’, as associated at this time with the post-War reconstruction of our country. On the large scale this related to the city and at the small scale to the home. It was about infrastructure, structure and change, from the historical point of view as well as the physical.
"This was inevitably linked to the industrialisation and prefabrication of construction that were needed in order to meet the urgent needs facing the country for housing, schools and factories. This in turn led to the whole issue of structure and systems – including what are now called high-tech and lightweight structures.
"The written thesis was read by Arthur Korn, who taught at the Bauhaus with Walter Gropius before it was closed by Hitler. I was encouraged, since Arthur Korn seemed delighted and gave it a distinction. Covering the thesis there was an exhibition of models and drawings at the degree show, which caught the eye of Ove Arup, who had been a big figure as an engineer in the architecture scene since the thirties and was a powerful voice in the modern movement.
"Ten days later I had a call from his secretary to arrange a meeting. I had no idea what for and nor had she. I suspected I had been invited through Ronald Jenkins, who was a partner of his and whom I had used as a tutor at the AA. He was a brilliant mathematician and had devised a means of calculating thin-shell structures in concrete – then much in vogue, and also the inspiration for the design of the Sydney Opera House. As far as I was concerned, Arup walked on the foothills of Olympus.
"So I turned up at the agreed time at 8 Fitzroy Street and was shown into his study on the fist floor, which had been the drawing room of Octavia Hill, who started the National Trust. It was a beautiful room and furnished with the lively and eccentric taste of someone with a sophisticated but catholic eye. His hat sat on the head of a benign and peaceful Buddha. He was standing when I entered and introduced myself. He was a tall man with black glasses and white hair at the back of his large and striking head, and with a strong presence.
"Arup quickly came to the point. They wanted to develop a design using timber and new resin-bonded plywood for the prefabrication of schools. The manufacturers were the clients. He was offering me and a colleague a job for six months to undertake this work.
"Excited on the one hand and dismayed on the other, I wondered what was to happen to our plans at Banyuls. I explained my problem – that I had planned to take six months off to make a house with my own hands, just as I had helped build a racing dinghy with my father. Also the need I had for practical, physical work as an alternative to, and as an affirmation of, all the theoretical work of the previous five years. I explained that we already had a site and friends conscripted as the labour force.
"His face lit up with interest and curiosity; he had a wonderfully expressive face. He immediately wanted to know more. What materials? How to acquire them? How was it to be constructed with unskilled labour? And so on. The six-month job with him had been forgotten and by this time we were both busy designing a house in the south of France, our 4B pencils producing more and more paper from a 10-inch roll spilling out onto the floor. Then he stood up and, looking out of the long Georgian window, brooded a while before turning round and saying, ‘Well you see, I think you can have six weeks, not six months.’ And that is how I joined Arup’s for six months – and then stayed for forty years.
"A friend of mine once mused, ‘One wife, one home, and one job,’ and I thought: what an epitaph! However, in the real sense, it is hardly true, for as with barristers, architects’ brief are never the same. Each is a new challenge, a new story, and very often a new adventure.”
“On my return from France I launched straight into the Arup project, working with Francis Pym, and Paul Beckman, a young engineer who was later to be responsible for the restoration of York Minster.
"The three of us set our sights on developing a prefabrication system. We were working with door manufacturers for our panelling and with a large company that was our client and that made display stands for Olympia and Earl’s Court, with advanced techniques in the use of timber.
"In the autumn of 1953 there was a large exhibition in Olympia called Britain Can Make It. It was a sales pitch for British manufacturers. We were asked to design the stand to promote our system for use in the building of schools. The stand had to be eye-catching and clearly illustrate the advantages of the system’s flexibility. This was essentially all about geometry, appropriate modular co-ordination and speed and economy of erection. Our stand had to demonstrate all this. To some extent it was an homage to the Bauhaus, but there was no escaping that, for this was their territory. Ove was delighted and it had good coverage in the architectural press.
"We took it in turns to man the stand and to answer questions, and one day a small man wearing a pork-pie hat, with alerted eyes, a quizzical smile and a puckered face came up. I immediately recognised Hugh Casson, though I had never met him. An hour later, having been through every detail and talked of architecture and of Ove, he waved goodbye with his hat and left.
"As I learned later, his capacity to get things done, and with a lightness of touch which inspired co-operation, was exceptional. This was obviously a crucial factor in the success of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition, where he was the director of design, setting a benchmark for urban design so soon after the War which sadly was not developed then, as it should have been.
"Our first challenge using our system was for an urgently needed school for disabled children in Hertfordshire. For the sake of speed, I believed that we should prefabricate all the services, drainage, and so on, as well as the cores servicing lavatories, bathrooms and kitchens, in addition to the structure and partitioning, and that we accomplished. The construction of this first school was very swift, and we completed the project from going on site to being fully equipped, occupied and operational in three months. It is something I’ve always been quite proud of and it was a bit of a seven-day wonder, widely reported at the time. What was good was that it justified the system, which was used for a number of schools and only ceased being manufactured when our clients found themselves overwhelmed by the needs of the new and expanding market that spun off from television.
"It was our work at Duxford that really put Arup’s architecture on the map. It started appearing in architectural exhibitions and also raising interesting questions. One senior member of the RIBA accused me of undermining the architectural profession by working with engineers in a consulting structural engineering firm. Also, an early architectural recruit was warned by the AA that he would never get another job if he worked for us. The hostility was real. Institutional boundaries were becoming threatened, whereas in practice it is where they overlap that interesting things so often develop.
"The work that we had completed was now becoming noticed, and when I was invited to design new graduate accommodation for Somerville College in Oxford, it became time to reconsider what was fast becoming an ambiguous situation. It was all right for engineers to design industrial buildings provided they didn’t appear in the Architectural Review. The important research institute and headquarters for Smith-Kline & French – who were moving their European operations, which we had also designed – to the UK, further blurred the issue.
"Ove’s immediate reaction was that I should go into private practice, but by then six months had already turned into nine years, relationships had been built up, and I believed profoundly in multidisciplinary working. I asked that we should discuss the possibility of setting up an identifiable architectural-and-engineering partnership, which in practice already existed under the name of The Building Group and included mechanical, environmental, and electrical engineers as well as quantity surveyors.
"A series of long discussions ensued with Ove’s partners, a couple of whom were very worried, particularly as regards the possible reaction of their architectural clients. Eventually, the decision was in favour and so, on sunny afternoon sitting in Ove’s garden looking over Hampstead Heath towards Kenwood, it was decided to form Arup Associates Architects and Engineers which, apart from Ove, would also include Ronald Hobbs, Derek Sugden, and me as partners. So, in professional terms, we made ‘an honest woman’ of ourselves.”