Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival preview: Adrian Duncan writes for Culture about his new documentary, Floating Structures, co-directed with Feargal Ward, which premieres at this year's festival.
In January 1977, a few days after the Pompidou Centre in Paris opened to the public, Peter Rice, an Irish engineer working on the construction noticed, while standing on the fourth floor of the building, an elderly Parisian woman sitting next to one of its gerberettes – huge joints connecting the posts and beams of its external steel skeleton. She was stroking the cast steel element as if it were a dog. It struck Rice that her interacting with the material in this way gave her a type of access to the nature of the structure.
I became somewhat obsessed with Rice’s work, his influences, his politics, his rigour, his daring and the almost sculptural quality of his structural solutions and artefacts.
Rice, who passed away in 1992 at the age of 57, is not well known in Ireland, yet he was the lead engineer on some of the world’s most innovative buildings, including the Sydney Opera House, the Lloyd’s of London building and the Pavilion of the Future in Seville. One reason for this is precisely because Rice was an engineer. In construction, it is only the architect’s name that is associated with the building; the engineer’s work remains largely unknown.
In 2008 I left my career as a structural engineer to study fine art. It was not until 2010 or so, while I was speaking to a fellow student that I first heard of Rice. Sometime later, I found his book An Engineer Imagines, which Rice had begun writing in 1992 soon after he had been diagnosed with the inoperable brain tumour that caused his death. I became somewhat obsessed with Rice’s work, his influences, his politics, his rigour, his daring and the almost sculptural quality of his structural solutions and artefacts.
In late 2017, after working on a couple of short films with my friend Feargal Ward (The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid) we decided to apply for the Arts Council’s Reel Art fund to make a film about Rice’s building. After receiving the award, we spent all of 2018 travelling over and back to Paris visiting a variety of lesser-known structures Rice worked on throughout the city: the inverted glass pyramid at the Louvre, a cloud made of fabric at La Défense on the east side of the city, and a series of enormous glass-box facades at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie at La Villette in the northern part of the city.
Our film takes the form of a travelogue, following a researcher as he travels from a mysterious Bavarian bridge, mentioned in Rice’s book, to Paris, where this researcher circles the city seeking out these strange structures that Rice invented.
While we were working on this film, we saw Rice’s designs first-hand. We also came to understand why Rice believed that the tactility of a building was of such importance. He saw tactility of this kind as being similar to empathy, because it allows the traces of the hands and thoughts of those who built the structure to be visible to those who come after.
Floating Structures screens on Mon 25th Feb at 6:30pm, in the Irish Film Institute - find out more about this year's Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival programme here. Read Paddy Kehoe's review of An Engineer Imagines, a film about the life of engineer Peter Rice, here