‘TOTAL DESIGN’: WHY WE MUST ALWAYS WORK TOGETHER

Constructive Deconstruction explains the philosophy of ‘Total Design’ and why its message remains relevant to design and construction professionals today.


So, what is ‘Total Design’?

‘Total Design’ is one of six aims illustrated in the ‘Key Speech’ – a manifesto by the late Sir Ove Arup in the 1970s that would carry his philosophy for the globally redoubtable firm he founded – declaring the importance of building as an act of system delivery, rather than a standalone product. In other words, buildings could be of a higher quality and exhibit relevance that is enduring when a more collaborative and open-minded approach to engineering is taken.

This new school of thought towards engineering having a deeper purpose than mere objective structural performance would start to reveal itself during World War II, when there was a lucid divide between engineers and architects.

Sir Ove Arup – the philosopher engineer – 1969. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

“This faithful marriage becoming evident between engineering and architecture would soon be challenged on the global stage when Sir Ove Arup collaborated on the timeless and iconic masterstroke that is the Sydney Opera House.” – Constructive Deconstruction

With a firm hand in engineering – ie. the science of things applied – and the other hand in philosophy – ie. the truth of things – Ove merged these two spheres of knowledge and reimagined a better method to approaching the design and construction of buildings, highlighting that engineering and architecture are not so different after all. “Engineering is not a science. Science studies particular events to find general laws. Engineering design makes use of the laws to solve particular practical problems. In this it is more closely related to art or craft” stated Ove, signifying a common shared objective between both industries.

This enlightening ethos to structural engineering and how the profession operates would soon attract fellow participating engineers worldwide who carried the same belief, all in the aim of “doing more than building.” Design decisions from this point forward would no longer be considered an isolated activity. To the contrary, they were considered collectively by the various design and construction professionals involved in the project at hand, generating more rewarding and wholesomely built outcomes.

This faithful marriage becoming evident between engineering and architecture would soon be challenged on a global stage when Sir Ove Arup collaborated on the timeless and iconic masterstroke that is the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House – a gift that keeps on giving – which was instrumental in the rise of Arup and their ground-breaking philosophy for engineering.

Jorn Utzon – a Danish visionary architect that conceptualised the Sydney Opera House back in 1957 via an open-source competition – would soon have Ove on board along with Ove Arup & Partners’ senior partner in London Jack Zunz, who specifically oversaw the explicit shell-like construction in the overall scheme. They would soon become allies in converting Utzon’s ambitious design into a structure that was feasible and buildable.

What was meant to be exemplary of a forged professional partnership between engineer and architect would soon dissipate, where it was soon realised that the abstract architectural elements that mimic shells were in fact unbuildable.

The expressive Sydney Opera House shells – a symbol of Arup’s tenacity towards redefining what engineering can do.

This created immeasurable pressure for all parties involved, especially the Australian Government. As a result, relationships deteriorated and collaboration floundered to the point of stopping the staged construction completely. This ultimately resulted in Jorn’s resignation in 1966, with Ove and Jack having to see the project through to completion in 1973.

Today, the Sydney Opera House does not stand as a faultless representation of Ove’s ‘Total Design’ philosophy. It rather stands as a tangible testament of his tenacity towards pushing conventional engineering in the hope of achieving a built outcome that is of utmost quality and worthy of enduring relevance. This single relentless act to his craft would lead to Arup’s legacy of engineering feats with various clientele all over the world thereafter, earning them the well-deserved tagline “we shape a better world.”

“Commentary such as ‘Architects – engineers who can’t do math; Engineers – architects who can’t do art’ is not healthy nor helpful in sustaining a more collaborative design and build culture.” – Constructive Deconstruction

‘Total Design’ has a solemn promise in accomplishing something great through working together as industries with a shared common interest.

The philosophy of ‘Total Design’ blatantly revolutionised the way in which engineers and architects worked together. So, how is this thinking relevant today?

The quest for quality spaces and places has never waivered throughout the development of civilisation; its value will forever be sought after. Therefore, in order to accomplish built developments that reflect this, professions must continually learn how to integrate better together. The payoff is the result being greater than the sum of its parts.

Thinking outside of our personally invested professional frameworks is vital in achieving this mission. Professions resuming residence in their separate silos is harmful to the development process as a whole, especially the client who has the biggest vested interest in any given project that is commissioned. By having a better understanding of all the disciplines that contribute to the built outcome through considered collaboration should be a mandatory measure in all project management programmes. Architects and engineers are certainly not alone in this.

By adopting a more ‘Total Design’ approach, we can start to plan and build a greater future for developments.

Additionally, commentary such as ‘Architects – engineers who can’t do math; Engineers – architects who can’t do art’ is not healthy nor helpful in sustaining a more collaborative design and build culture. This belittling needs to stop. Rather, harnessing our individual assets and utilising them in constructive discussions centered around a shared interest is surely a more desirable representation of not only ourselves, but of the professions we represent. This message of inclusion starts with better use of spoken language that is used between design and construction professionals.

Evidently, ‘Total Design’ tells us that teams create greatness; not individuals. So ask yourself: why aren’t we working more together?


Written by Thomas Denhardt – Author and Creative Director of Constructive Deconstruction


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