Generally speaking, architects are the ones with the visions. Engineers are hired to get the job done. However, as designs have become grander and less conventional, engineers have had to be more creative in realizing their visions. Peter Rice is a perfect example. He was the lead structural engineer on iconic buildings such as the Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre Pyramid, and the Lloyd’s of London Building. In his relatively short life, Rice helped drastically alter the look and possibilities of urban architecture. Marcus Robinson celebrates Rice’s legacy in the quietly reverential documentary An Engineer Imagines, which releases virtually today, in select markets.
During his tenure with the Arup Group, a design and engineering consulting firm, Rice played a leading role in the construction of the aforementioned landmarks, as well as Paris’s La Grande Arche de la Defense, the science museum and park complex of La Villette, and the new façade of Lille Cathedral. They are all stunning looking buildings, but Robinson weirdly spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing the lighting scheme Rise designed for the Full Moon Theatre, exclusively utilizing moonlight. Granted, it is a neat idea, but the Full Moon gets more screen-time than the Louvre Pyramid.
Frankly, the cinematic look of Rice’s projects really is the saving grace of Robinson’s film. The pace is slow to the point of even being sluggish, while the remembrances of Rice’s friends and colleagues are as respectful as you would expect, but not especially colorful. To make matters worse, Rod Morris’s score is exactly the kind of unobtrusive background music that could very well lull many viewers to sleep.
You really have to be passionate about architecture to make it through An Engineer Imagines—and that is a problem. You should not have to be that keen to be intrigued by the making of the Sydney Opera House (after all, Magneto destroyed it in X-Men Apocalypse and Jackie Chan fought on its famous roof in Bleeding Steel). A documentary like this should try to make architecture in general more accessible to untutored amateurs, with open minds. However, for those who are willing to work for it, Robinson’s film gives viewers a greater appreciation of the role of the engineer in general as well as Rice’s significant contributions to the field (and city skylines).
An Engineer Imagines is educational and sometimes heartfelt, but it represents a missed opportunity to get people to think about and engage more with architecture as an art form—and engineering as a calling that shapes our lives and environments. As a film, it just isn’t very cinematic, despite the visually striking buildings it documents. Only recommended for insiders, An Engineer Imagines releases virtually today, via Music Box Films StreamLocal.