The Sky's the Limit

How Arup became the go-to firm for the most challenging and ambitious projects of our time

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The global engineering and design firm has played a big role in reshaping the skyline of London. This image includes work with some of its most prominent collaborators. Pictured in the foreground, from far left, are: Heron Tower, Kohn Pedersen Fox; 30 St. Mary Axe, Foster and Partners; St. Helens Building, GMW Architects; and 122 Leadenhall Street, Richard Rogers Partnership.

Thomas Graham, Courtesy Arup

ONE OF THE VEXATIONS that comes with attempting to explain the operations of Arup—the 67-year-old, 10,000-plus employee global engineering giant—is trying to find another, similar company to compare it to. “Certainly there are other firms in the same space,” says Arup Americas chairman Mahadev Raman, name-checking a few full-service design- engineering practices like AECOM and Büro Happold. But as far as true peer companies go, Arup is almost in a class of its own: When it partners with architects on open competitions, the firm frequently ends up vying against itself, and has to resort to intra-office firewalls to separate the various teams at work on different contending proposals.

What sets Arup apart isn’t so much the range of things it can do; other firms, like British builders WSP Group, offer more in the way of construction management, and can see a project through to completion in a way that Arup can’t. But if Arup has seemingly become the go-to office for the most structurally and logistically complex projects of our time, it may be simply because the firm is prepared to take risks that other companies—some of them more commercially minded and arguably more disciplined—won’t. Raman says, “We love to explore new things, test theories, experiment with design.A certain number of those things fail, but we have a greater tolerance for that risk and failure.” Adam Snow Frampton, a former OMA associate who worked with the engineers on Taipei’s Performing Arts Center, echoes that sentiment, saying that Arup not only takes up its clients’ challenges, but also challenges them in turn. “We push them, and then they push us,” he says.

For the Seattle Central Library (designed by OMA and LMN Architects), Arup developed an innovative structural and facade system that enabled large multi-level atria.

Christian Richters/courtesy Arup

From lofty towers in Europe to new cities in Asia to airports in the Middle East, the projects by Arup’s staff have earned the firm a reputation among its architect-clients as a group of technological tightrope walkers, engineers daring enough to keep up with the hyperactive imaginations of today’s designers. “Their solutions are always very economi- cal, very beautiful, and kind of distilled down to their essentials,” says Snøhetta director Elaine Molinar, who’s called on the company time and again to turn innovative concepts into reality. The formal expressiveness and functional density that have been key to the spectacular turn in the design world over the last two decades have been made possible, to no small degree, by Arup: A disproportionate number of watershed designs (Norman Foster’s Swiss Re in London, Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing Bird’s Nest) bear the Arup imprimatur, and the firm’s name pops up, Zelig-like, in connection with scads of others. Sometimes it feels like Arup is everywhere at once.

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