How Arup Became the Go-To Firm for the Most Ambitious Projects of Our Time

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

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.

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 economical, 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.

The Bird’s Nest, Beijing, Herzog & De Meuron (2008). Although seemingly random, the arrangement of the steel abides by complex structural rules diagrammed by Arup’s engineers. Below: a rendering of the structural skeleton.

Courtesy Arup

Which, in a sense, it is. Arup operates 90 offices in 60 countries the world over, and this global reach allows it to condense delivery timelines with round-the-clock operations. At least notionally, Arup has the capacity—abetted by an elaborate system of online communications linking its diverse locations—to pass a single project from office to office like a hot potato in a seamless, 24-hour working cycle. The “follow-the-sun” system is rarely applied in practice, Raman notes, adding, “The reality is that it’s much easier to break off chunks of work and have them done in different places, as opposed to processing over different time zones.” For the new King Abdulaziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia, for example, Arup was tasked with producing a whole design and structural scheme—nearly from scratch—in a scant 120 days. “We did it by mobilizing the global teams around the Arup world,” says Arup principal Cliff McMillan, who tapped into different areas of expertise from the assorted branches to bring the project in on schedule.

Nonetheless, the popular perception of a ubiquitous global dynamo turning out projects on a kind of worldwide conveyor belt has become part of the Arup mythos—and a certain air of myth has been essential to the firm’s success. A unique corporate ethos, one so totalizing as to amount almost to a sort of civic cult, pervades the firm, and it gives the engineers the impetus to go out on a limb the way they do: Organizationally, the firm is configured on the horizontal axis rather than the vertical, with a rotating set of board members and trustees who guide the direction of the company but are never far removed from its operations or shut off from the voices of workaday engineers. “Everybody in Arup feels totally empowered to have a view on everything,” says engineer Tristram Carfrae. As an Arup Fellow, Carfrae is part of that active, vocal culture, functioning as a free agent who can move from office to office and project to project, helping to counter the centralizing, sclerotic tendency that sometimes besets large companies like Arup. Most importantly, Arup is wholly owned by its employees, with profits shared equitably by all of its offices. If, say, the firm overall has a banner year but one of its affiliates stumbles, the chairman and employees of the latter won’t suffer for it financially. As a result, every engineer has the freedom to try something new without constantly fretting over the bottom line.

AAMI Park Stadium; Victoria, Australia; Cox Architects and Partners (2010). The 31,000-seat stadium features a unique bio-frame roof made up of 20 interdependent shells. The roof uses 50 percent less steel than traditional stadiums.

Courtesy Arup

Tools and Materials. Top row: A railway tie; acoustic foams; Bottom row: carbon fiber (strong but lighter than steel); a Prada light (used in electrical engineering);  a crush test (performed by structural engineers)

Thomas Graham, courtesy Arup

Consensus, collaboration, and shared risk taking have all been a part of one recent Arup project, the Taipei Pop Music Center in Taiwan. Working with New York City-based architects Reiser + Umemoto, Arup has been in the process of erecting an entertainment complex centered around a 5,000-seat auditorium; the greater challenge, however, was the creation of the Robot Theater, imagined by the designers as a mobile, scalable venue that could adapt to accommodate an array of performance types. Raj Patel is a principal at Arup’s acoustics division, and he’s been working with colleagues in both the structural and sound-engineering departments in a months-long ping-pong rally between the Hong Kong location and his own office in New York. “It’s a vibrant process,” he says, “talking about it online in real time, taking in the visual and acoustics factors as well as the moving components and the structural issues.” A major part of the Arup experience is the ease of city-to-city transfers for regular employees, and the fact that Patel had worked in the Hong Kong office—and that some of his colleagues had worked in New York—made interaction that much easier. Also symptomatic was the depth of the individual skill sets at play: Patel himself is a classically trained musician.

The breadth of the firm’s expertise, too, is part and parcel of its group-oriented ethos. Trent Lethco leads the transportation planning team for Arup in New York, and is currently at work on a new “smart street” project in Pittsburgh to enhance street life and economic activity though new interactive displays and improved way finding. Arup is certainly more famous for its glamorous high-rises and palaces of culture, but the Pittsburgh project exemplifies the small-bore infrastructure projects that are in its wheelhouse as well. “Most of the planning we do doesn’t tap into the structural work the company is well-known for,” says Lethco—and yet, he notes, his signage and lighting, and streetscape designers are on equal footing with the firm’s tower-builders, and their respective abilities prove complementary. “We can collaborate with them for finding solutions that might not be obvious to a civil engineer,” he says.

The democratic, all-hands-on-deck approach—and the Arup mystique that’s grown up around it—is part of the patrimony of the company’s founder. Arup is the namesake of engineer Ove Nyquist Arup (later Sir Ove), the son of a Danish father and Norwegian mother born in 1895 in the English industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Prior to World War II, Arup bounced between a number of prominent construction firms, coming into contact with European pioneers of modern design (Walter Gropius, Erno Goldfinger) then exiled in London; when the war came, Arup took command of major defense projects, chiefly bunkers and coastal fortifications. The combined exposure, on the one hand, to progressive-minded early modernism, and on the other, to the rigors of war work, seems to have imbued Arup with a special determination to grow his engineering firm into a force for peace and social betterment in the postwar world. In his words, the employees at the firm should always bear in mind “that no man is an island, that our lives are inextricably mixed up with those of our fellow human beings, and that there can be no real happiness in isolation.”

Taipei Pop Music Center, Taiwan, Reiser + Umemoto Rur Architecture PC (TBC). Above: A rendering of the structural skeleton; Below: A site-plan rendering. The center includes a 5,000–6,000-person capacity main hall, smaller performance spaces, exhibition galleries, digital media libraries, retail, offices, recording studios, a restaurant, and a bridge linking the two site areas.

Reiser + Umemoto, courtesy Arup

Those lines come from the quasi-holy writ of Arup lore, the Key Speech, an address delivered by Arup himself around the time of his retirement in July, 1970. Twenty-four years since he founded the company, the engineering éminence grise decided to lay out his ideas in a series of principles that could continue to serve as signposts for the firm after his departure. At the heart of the speech were six main aims:

1. Quality of work
2. Total architecture
3. Humane organization
4. Straight and honorable dealings
5. Social usefulness
6. Reasonable prosperity of members

These, together with some of the broader goals outlined in the speech, remain a part of the daily conversation at Arup today. McMillan has been with the firm since 1965—since the days of the Sydney Opera House, one of the projects that first brought Arup to global attention—and though much has changed, he says, “I look at the value system here today, and it’s the same value system that Old Man Arup put in place when he wrote down the Key Speech.” There is something endearing about a multinational company maintaining such profound fealty to its founder and his lofty philosophy. But some of that philosophy, which is so much a part of the firm’s determined otherness, has also begun to creak in the twenty-first century. There are a few obvious instances; certainly no one at Arup treasures this line, also from the Key Speech:

“Secretaries…could have a tremendously civilizing influence on our staff… But secretaries who can do that are of course at a premium. We must try to find them. It is even more important than that they are good-looking—and nobody could accuse me of being indifferent to that.” 

Beyond that bit of Mad Men-ish chauvinism, however, the earnestness of Arup’s social-entrepreneurial model also belongs very much to its time, and it tends to run up against certain stubborn realities of contemporary life. In the spirit of its progressive patriarch, Arup has committed itself to eco-sensitive design, and has embarked on projects—like a new sustainable community near Beijing—that bring all its immense resources to bear on the problem of creating low- or no-carbon-footprint cities. Yet it also has a division (an immensely profitable one) dedicated to the construction of offshore oil platforms. “It’s a debate that’s raging around the firm,” says Raman. The platforms are, in many ways, “very Arup,” just the kind of bold endeavor and heady design problem the founder would have loved. But they also stand to undo much of the good being wrought by Arup’s low-energy-consumption LED lighting and carbon-sequestering building materials.

Taipei Performing Arts Center, Taiwan, OMA. Arup’s rendering of the structural steel. The superstructure consists of a central cube, surrounded by three projecting auditoria.

Courtesy Arup

The ideals passed down from Old Man Arup have perhaps only made it as far as 2013 because the company, unlike most its size, has expanded not through acquisitions but through natural growth, with new offices opening up wherever there’s work to be found. Even so—and though Arup has more than the customary share of Cliff McMillans—employees who have spent nearly their whole working lives there—there are those who don’t necessarily take to its highly democratic internal structure, who tire of the constant workshops and online skills networks that Arup makes an integral part of office life. Isn’t engineering, after all, supposed to be a profession of straightforward right and wrong, of definite solutions handed down from on high?

Well, maybe it isn’t. Carfrae recalls one episode that suggests that the strength of Arup’s buildings begins in the strength of its community. During the competition for the National Aquatics Center at the Beijing Olympics, Carfrae took 13 engineers to an initial proposal meeting, representing the full spectrum of Arup’s capabilities. “Others would have said, ‘Not yet,’” Carfrae says: better, perhaps, to have a brought along a smaller command group to start hashing out the basics for the project. The conversation wasn’t an easy one. But it was only for the inclusion of a contingent of Arup acousticians, who suggested using ETFE fabric for its sound insulation quality, that the team first began to consider the material for the building’s cladding—a feature that became its hallmark. Problem-solving in the Arup fashion, it turns out, means not being afraid to cause a few problems along the way. “It’s that ability to believe that chaos in a way resolves itself—it doesn’t matter if it’s overly complicated to begin with,” Carfrae says. “Just keep talking, and at some point, it’ll become clear.”


In any case, after nearly seven decades and tens of thousands of structures big and small, Arup seems confident in its own singularity. “Every time we take advice from a management consultant, we take it as what not to do,” jokes Carfrae, adding, “We don’t want to become like the corporate mainstream.” To Raman, what makes the company unique isn’t a matter of looking back to a set of antiquated commandments, but of finding practical ways to apply them to today’s problems. Arup’s heritage isn’t “a mantra that’s out there,” says the chairman. “Don’t refer to it. Bloody live the thing.” The proof, after all, is in the projects, and whatever indirections Arup’s process might entail, its engineers seem to be finding their way just fine.

This rendering illustrates the complex structural loads of the Innovation Tower at the Hongkong Polytechnic University, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Courtesy Arup

Innovation Tower, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Zaha Hadid Architects (under construction). The nearly completed building, which houses the School of Design and accommodates 1,700 students.

Kalson Ho, courtesy Arup

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