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Structural engineer Chris Wise next week takes over the leadership of the Faculty of Royal Designers. Gareth Gardner meets new master and hears about his plans for using the Royal Designers as a powerful think tank


As a bored student dodging structural analysis lectures, one person changed my outlook on engineering. Chris Wise, who this week becomes Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers, provided assistance with a design project.

Wise’s creativity and passion for structural engineering – communicating through quick-fire sketches – made a lasting impression. Far from just being pages of dense calculations, he showed how structural engineering is an art form.

That was 1993, and Wise was a rising star in the engineering firmament. The previous year he had been appointed Arup’s youngest ever director, with a staff of 500 engineers.

Scroll forward to 2007, and Wise now runs his own 60-strong consultancy, Expedition Engineering, with fellow directors Ed McCann and Seán Walsh. It’s a practice that delights in pushing back the boundaries, whether making a structure more slender, sustainable or adaptable. ‘It’s what makes me come to work in the mornings,’ he says.

Blazing a trail isn’t without its challenges. While at Arup, Wise was engineer for London’s Millennium Bridge, working with architect Foster & Partners under a blaze of publicity to solve the notorious wobble. Expedition is currently building the North Shore footbridge in Stockton-on-Tees, due to open next year, which will ‘do for arches what the Millennium Bridge did for suspension structures’, grins Wise.

Expedition’s work in progress also includes Italy’s tallest building, a tower in Turin designed with architect Renzo Piano, due to be completed in 2010. That’s not to mention the conversion of a historic bullring in Barcelona, a £500m regeneration scheme at Greenwich Wharf and the engineering of the 2012 Olympics Velodrome. All that Wise will say of that project is that, ‘It’s politically challenging. There’s a microscope focused on it.’

If engineering doesn’t keep him busy enough, he also teaches widely – Wise was the first Professor of creative design at Imperial College in London – and is an active member of both the Design Council and the Royal Society of Art’s Risk Commission.

But his two-year role as Faculty Master is currently uppermost in his mind. Since being named a Royal Designer for Industry by the RSA in 1998, he has played a key role in updating the organisation. ‘As a body, it didn’t do much,’ admits Wise. They would meet biannually to debate new appointees and hold an occasional exhibition. ‘But over the past five years activity has increased a lot.’

Wise helped to establish the RDI Summer School, which brings ‘streetwise people’ together with Royal Designers. He hopes that over the coming years the faculty can further increase its educational role.

Founded in 1936, the faculty was established to recognise leaders in the field of industrial design. It currently boasts 108 members, about to be joined by six newcomers including Margaret Howell from the fashion world, digital specialist Simon Waterfall, of consultancy Poke and interior designer Ben Kelly.

It’s what you do with this wellhead of talent that really matters, though. With recently appointed RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor keen to transform his organisation into an instrument of social change, Wise believes the Royal Designers could become a powerful think tank that would help the RSA to achieve its ambitions.

Wise is only the second structural engineer to be appointed to the RDI’s illustrious ranks. And that’s not to mention a baffling lack of architects. Part of the problem, Wise claims, is that members have traditionally chosen from among their own. Textile designers begat other textile designers. ‘A great swathe of contemporary designers are not represented,’ he laments.

As part of Wise’s agenda for change, an extraordinary meeting will be held in early 2008 to discuss what ‘industry’ means in the 21st century. ‘We will be inviting people who are not RDIs to give their take on design in their specific areas,’ he explains. ‘I strongly believe that the world has changed. Individual disciplines are blurring.’ He is hoping to attract representatives from diverse worlds including genetics, robotics, gaming and communications.

It’s a blurring that Wise sees transforming his own role as a structural engineer. ‘I think that engineering is an art, not a science,’ he says. ‘But the artistic part was suppressed during the past century.’ With technological advances, the maths part become so complex it dominated the role. More recently, IT advances have liberated engineers ‘to be more creative and artistic’. Few would argue that Wise isn’t both of those things.

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