A typical thick smog looms over the Beijing Central Business District, and yet from where I sit it does not hinder my view. In fact, it is hard not to drift between the man and the monument. The man is structural engineer and director at ARUP Rory McGowan, and the monument, the China Central Television building. And being 23 floors up in an office tower a few blocks from the CCTV gives me an even better perspective. Next to it, of course, is the infamous TVCC which erupted in flames last year and has since been left in its charred state. ‘You can ask me whatever you want,’ Rory states while entering the room, ‘except about that one.’ I understand the sensitivity about the issue and tell him that it is not the reason why I am here. Having joined Arup in 1986, Rory McGowan has been involved as an engineer in a massive amount of benchmark projects: Casa da Musica by OMA , CCTV and TVCC by OMA , Congrexpo by OMA , Villa VPRO by MVRDV, National Space Center by Grimshaw and Kansai National Airport by Renzo Piano, just to name a few.
You began working for Arup 23 years ago. How did you land the job and what makes working there a pleasure?
Rory McGowan: At the time I knew very little, except that Arup was considered the best. The story is rather clichéd: I literally knocked on their door in Dublin, got an interview and the job. So, this is my first job. I have witnessed Arup grow into a large company that functions with the freedom of a small company, which is highly unusual, but is one of our foundations for success. Despite the company’s other sectors, I still remain principally project focused which is not customary for a director. My main interests are working with architects on designs.
Could you describe your transition from the London to the Beijing office?
Rory McG: In 2002 at the London office, I became the director of the team for the CCTV building, leading the competition and engineering. As a consequence I was asked to move to China.
Throughout the past years you talked extensively about the CCTV building. I am interested in your reaction when first confronted with three key CCTV models; 1. the Styrofoam model 2. the shaking table model and 3. the final form.
Rory McG: In April 2002 I walked into the OMA office in Rotterdam. A large blue Styrofoam model sat on the table and Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren and a few others were looking at it. Rem introduced the project, the competition and said: ‘This is what we are thinking about.’ At first I was taken aback: it was outrageous but at the same time was a drop dead serious proposal. We all knew what the OMA circumstances were based on our prior experiences with them, like the hyper building and other projects in the 1980s and ’90s. The issues of connectivity, a large workforce in one single building, structures resting against one other, were par for the course. The shaking table model was probably the riskiest moment in the whole project. The engineering tools that are available to us today are pretty accurate and when faced with a university-made physical model it felt strange.
The sophistication of any physical model is so poor that anything could happen. The test was successful, but if it hadn’t been, or the model had been badly made, then it would have set off a series of unstoppable events. As for what you see through these windows, the standing CCTV building, well, I had the benefit of sitting at this desk throughout the entire process. Everyday I would see it rise bit by bit out of the ground and now that it is finished, it is hard to believe.
Why is it hard to believe? You can believe your computer models, no?
Rory McG: It is not hard to believe from an engineering point of view but it is still sinking in that we have actually done it.
And using the computer, what extreme scenarios did you have to model?
Rory McG: We had to demonstrate that any key column at any location in the building could be removed without disproportionate consequences. CCTV is actually overdesigned. On a normal day the mesh structure encasing the building only receives 30 to 40 per cent of the load, meaning that if one of the other structural elements were removed, the mesh could easily compensate for the loss. This was one of the reasons we really went for this mesh design.
Can you predict if there will be an evolution in fundamental engineering design in the near future?
Rory McG: There are more tall buildings going up now than ever before and one of the critical design issues, apart from wind loads or seismic events, is occupant comfort. Specifically, a lot of material goes into making a building stiff, so that people do not feel it sway or get concerned by their building physically moving. We just completed the St Francis Tower [ARUP info] (the tallest residential high-rise building in the Philippines, 60 floors and 212 m high), where we incorporated dampers into the structure system, a system that Arup patented. Putting dampers in buildings is 20 years old, but they have only been utilized to improve the performance of a building. We have created a new use for an old product; the dampers we put in can alter the motion of the building. The wind loads a building experiences depend on the period of the building, it is not just static blows from wind, it is a dynamic loading from the wind. Basically, if you can alter the period of a building, you can alter the wind loads. We persuaded the authorities about this. In return, it has had its effect on the design and saved material. That is where comfort, safety and sustainability come together.
What did you learn from CCTV that can be applied in other contexts? Or is it truly unique?
Rory McG: In China when you fall outside the prescriptive codes with a design based on first principles, you are faced with a decision-making process that is still in its infancy. Arup developed that whole process with the Chinese Ministry of Construction. Therefore, the construction of CCTV has helped to shape the Ministry’s level of rigour in analysis, design and approach, thus engaging the use of international best practice. This has been a very encouraging process. The authorities have learned a lot from it and have used it as a precedent for other designs.
But in terms of engineering the construction, typology and architectural form?
Rory McG: Basically it is about the amount of material you use. If you start from the point of view that the client wants an iconic building and had been given a standard tower as option, the amount of material used would have been similar. What we demonstrated is that by using the same material in another way you can create a completely different geometry and building typology. The same goes with the budget. The question is how to use these parameters to obtain additional design value.
You also led the Arup Tokyo Kansai airport team in the 1990s, a milestone in airport design in Asia. What parts of that experience are still with you?
Rory McG: Kansai was very sophisticated and cutting edge at the time, although it failed to predict the importance of retail. Today airports are basically shopping centres with airplanes attached to them. The main feature of Kansai is its dynamic wing structure. Renzo Piano’s office had learned from the Bercy shopping centre not to do ‘a blob’ again. As a result, the geometry of the airport is a toroid and was seen as a really clever way to do repetitive geometry, redefining architecture in its wake. It was revolutionary in terms of fire engineering as it has no smoke curtain and we didn’t have to fire protect the steel work. That saved millions of pounds. Kansai was a feat of engineering and is still very relevant textbook material.
You have collaborated closely with Rem Koolhaas and OMA for 17 years now; which buildings in the past have been critical but, in the end, turned out to be disappointments?
Rory McG: Jussieu Library was the biggest disappointment. We could have done some really innovative work, but it just did not happen. However, my 17 years as a close collaborator with OMA is in large part due to their ability to distill huge amounts of information into one concise statement which is really quite an achievement. Their projects are frighteningly simple, in concept and analysis.
Why with them and not for them?
Rory McG: Oh no, you discovered my fantasy (laughs). I will leave the answer to the fact that all the people who were at OMA 17 years ago are not there anymore. Rem is the only one left. That answers the question. Seventeen years is a long time to work with one design firm, so it is also important to maintain some distance.
You are working on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange project. Where does the challenge lay in that project?
Rory McG: It is a floating box, so solving that in an effective, efficient and safe way was key. The forces are quite tricky but we eventually got it right by tweaking and doing some counterintuitive things.
Rory McG: Taking structure out instead of adding more in. In certain types of buildings when you put in a piece of structure, that single element attracts load and then if you make it bigger it will attract even more. So the answer turned out to be that elements should be taken out instead of added in. For months we went around the building and looked where various parts of the structure could be removed.
After working with architects for so long, do you have any advice for the future generation of architects? Something you feel architects do not yet know about themselves?
Rory McG: Architects are becoming more and more deskilled. At the same time building design is becoming more and more technically driven. Many architects are giving up their stakes in the design by allowing engineers to pick up the slack in technical knowledge. For example, you see façades that architects used to do now being done by façade engineers. Architects are retreating from of a lot of these issues. A key question is if architecture is really just about ideas. When you deskill, you loose the detailed knowledge that informs the big idea. You can sell the family jewels for so long but you will run out of them one day. Architects need to understand and grasp this, because if they don’t, a consultant will do it for them. The part that is even more scary is that they have to pay for the service and, in turn, wind up losing the creative control. A same critique could be applied to our work: in our practice in Beijing we aren’t allowed to do construction drawings on products yet. We can do concept and schematic design for a number of years, but as the graduates come up through the ranks, they might not know what concrete looks like, and that will impact our ability to do our job.
Which building would you have loved to work on as an engineer?
Rory McG: Possibly some of Nervi’s projects during the war in Italy. I am fascinated by the light-weight structures he built: they are beautiful. The Pompidou Centre always has interested me, just for the opportunity to work with Peter Rice and to experience the collaboration between him, Rogers and Piano. Working with them would have been classic.
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- “Learning from CCTV | an interview with Rory McGowan” – Mark Magazine #24 (Feb-March 10)
Other articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
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