Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 18th June to 6th November 2016

Exhibition Review – Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 18th June to 6th November 2016



The V&A celebrates the life and legacy of one of the 20th century’s greatest engineers, Ove Arup (1895-1988), with the first ever retrospective on the philosopher-engineer. Through his pioneering philosophy of Total Design which advocated multidisciplinary approaches, Ove Arup helped to redefine the way architects, designers and engineers work together.


The exhibition forms part of the V&A Engineering Season and features over 150 previously unseen prototypes, models, archival materials, drawings, film and photography, as well as digital displays featuring animations, simulations and augmented reality that showcase over 100 years of creativity, engineering and architectural design.

The exhibition begins with Ove’s early career, although Arup was born in Newcastle, most of his education took place in Denmark, where he studied philosophy at Copenhagen University and an engineering degree at the Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen. He moved to London in 1923 and began to form his own ideas about modern engineering whilst at this time he was greatly influenced by leading architectural thinkers , Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.


The exhibition includes some of the technical studies and models for early projects like the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, and a lithograph portrait of Ove Arup by Le Corbusier are on display. In the 1930s, Arup moved from a series of small scale projects to bigger enterprises working with Tecton’s Berthold Lubetkin and a number of top architects including Ernö Goldfinger. By 1938, Arup decided to put his practical experience and engineering philosophy together with the founding of Arup & Arup Limited.

The next part of the exhibition explores Ove’s career over five decades and consider his philosophy of Total Design which were the fundamental principles for his firm and the way his company spotted talent and encouraged experimentation. The Second World War put on hold any development of the business, however Ove did make a contribution to the war effort by offering radical designs for improving wartime air raid shelters and important work on the Mulberry temporary harbours deployed during the D-Day landings in France in 1944.


If any building made Arup’s reputation it was the Sydney Opera House and the exhibition explores some of the elements that made its completion possible. The project was revolutionary in many ways, not least because it represented the first time computer-generated calculations were used on major building project.


One of the highlights of exhibition is the original Ferranti Pegasus computer used by Arup engineers that were crucial to the project,  pages of data are displayed , as well as preliminary sketches, technical drawings, models used for stress testing. Other projects are highlighted including the Pompidou Centre, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank HQ, and the Kansai International Airport Terminal Building. The last ever project completed by Ove himself, the Kingsgate Footbridge in Durham illustrates that the concept of Total Design could be applied to small and large products with equal success.


Ove Arup died in 1988 and the last part of the exhibition examines Ove’s legacy and by highlighting recent projects by Arup. The firm has grown into a global enterprise with 92 offices in 40 countries, its 12,000 planners, designers, engineers and consultants work on innovative projects all over the world.


Some of these projects show how Arup provide cutting-edge engineering solutions, their work on Crossrail includes a new digital interactive map, housing design is illustrated by work on WikiHouse. However, one of the most interesting exhibits is a recreation of an Arup SoundLab® which illustrates Arup’s new technologies for acoustics and environmental sound studies. The SoundLab provides case studies which allows visitors to understand how using innovation can bring long-term benefits, whether it is clearer train announcements in New York, better acoustics for a concert hall in Norway or potential noise and environmental issues with the HS2 railway route and wind farms.


This fascinating exhibition offers insight into the career of Ove Arup who bought philosophical ideas and practicality together in his ideas of Total Design. Although his ideas are accepted practice in the modern world, their application in the mid to late 20th century were revolutionary. Arup understood the application of technologies would transform engineering and design, the use of  the Ferranti Pegasus computer on the Sydney Opera House provided a template for many future developments. Part of his legacy has been the way that multi-disciplinary and fully integrated systems are considered fundamental to successful projects.


This is the first major exhibition led by the V&A’s new Design, Architecture and Digital department, formed in March 2015 and is the headline exhibition for the V&A Engineering Season. The season features a series of displays, large-scale installations including the Elytra Filament Pavilion, events and digital initiatives.

Admission £7 (concessions available). V&A Members go free.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended 

For more information or book tickets, visit the V & A website here

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