Salute an earthshaker

The death of Ted Happold last month signalled the loss to the industry of one of the greatest pioneers of structural engineering. Sutherland Lyall looks back at the work of a very talented man known for his humour and vitality as much as his rule-breaking

Only half mock-grumpily I said: “You’ve got to take this a bit more seriously”. He was killing himself on the other end of the line: “Nonsense. It’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all morning,” he chortled, in response to my story of me breaking my toe – an incident causing much blood, much pain and an unwillingness to tolerate the humour of people like Ted Happold.

Admittedly, he’d been laughing over his story of racing from his home in Bath to Manchester where a new heart was supposed to be waiting for him. It turned out to be the pump of a lad on steroids who died of heart failure. Ted thought that too was, in retrospect, very funny. There’s an order of magnitude between hearts and toes. And in the end there wasn’t a suitable replacement heart available. And now, aged 65, Ted is dead.

He was one of the great design engineers of this century. The structural solution to the Sydney Opera House shell roofs was his; it was he who persuaded Piano and Rogers to enter the Pompidou competition with him and got his team heavily involved in its complex structure – and he guarded their backs during its building. His great regret was always that everybody chickened out over having the floors move up and down. He worked with Frei Otto as one of the pioneers of flexible skin structures. As boss of Ove Arup’s special structure division he tackled some of the most interesting and daring structural problems going.

He was one of those rare engineers who liked architects experimenting with structure – and liked it even better when he and they could do it together. The more outrageous and complex the project, the more Ted was eager to get involved.

In 1976 he retired to Bath as professor of the new School of Architecture and Building Engineering. But his Arup staff wouldn’t let him retire and a number of them followed him to Bath to form the new engineering practice Buro Happold with senior partners Ian Liddle and Michael Dixon. The fabric roof of Ron Heron’s Imagination building was the work of the practice.

I’ve never met anybody who combined such extraordinary energy with such an open, enquiring, omnivorous mind and a lovely sense of the ridiculous. One minute he could be talking about some new and esoteric issues of engineering physics (which you actually ended up believing you had a grasp of), and the next he’d be seducing a government committee into doing something it had never thought possible. He was brilliant at getting people wildly enthusiastic.

Most committee people end up taking themselves very seriously. Ted, who was also Professor Sir Edmund Happold, took not himself, but ideas, very seriously. And he had an uncanny ability to get other people to take them seriously too. At Bath he set up the Wolfson research group into flexible structures, the first centre for window and cladding technology. He headed an official team for appraising sports grounds following the Hillsborough disaster and he was the motivator for the Construction Industry Council. He was also a Royal Designer for Industry, an unusual honour for an engineer, and a couple of years ago was master of its faculty.

But above all he was a wonderful, bouncy, larger than life person who always made you feel ten times better and more cheerful for having been in touch with him. Even when he’d laughed himself silly at your little predicament.

Sites for extremely sore eyes

Cheers for Imagination and its Millennium project win. The burning question is which site it should be on. The other day, the Blackwall tunnel being in its usual state of closure, I was edging my way through Greenwich. Visually, it sure is one sorry mess, with vestigial motor access located to one side of a big park with some nice old buildings in it. A mate was recently in Birmingham working on a light show. Birmingham, apparently, is not much better. It’s plain to see that the two sites need the Millennium project more than it needs them. What about Milton Keynes as a neutral alternative?

Apparently, it’s always been ebullient Imagination boss Gary Withers’ ambition to design the next coronation – although the events of the last couple of years must have taken the bloom off that. I do hope this revelation doesn’t put him out of the running for the enthronement of the first UK president.

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