The late Peter Rice was an Irish visionary who brought flair and imagination to his engineering work on some of the most iconic and challenging buildings constructed in the 20th century.

An Engineer Imagines, a new film about Rice's life, is as much about art as it is about engineering. Indeed it is hardly technical at all in its proceedings, looking more to highlight the playful, risk-taking side of the bold engineer.

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Foreign friends and collaborators - one of whom is moved to tears as he recalls him - pay tribute to their friend and colleague who grew up at 52 Castle Road, Dundalk. They recall the Irish charm and the glint in the eye of this burly, curly-haired Louth-man. Rice had the ability to jump off a cliff, knowing he would find a way of grappling back up, one of his friends remembers.

Directors from the global architectural film Arup speak of an engineer who was a charismatic, enabling force in the design of a number of iconic buildings throughout the world. There is the Pompidou Centre in Beaubourg in Paris, the Inverted Pyramid at the Louvre, La Vilette Science Park, Sydney Opera House and the now listed, Lloyds Building in London. It was Peter Rice who invented the cast-steel beams called gerberettes which facilitated clear spans of floor-space, without structural columns, at the Pompidou.

Born in 1935, the Dundalk man who attended the local CBS before Queen's University, is remembered as one of the "bad boys" of architectural design, along with Richard Rogers and Renzo Pianowith with whom he designed The Pompidou Centre in 1971. That was just three years after the Masy revolution of 1968 in Paris. Bold statements and striking out were still in the air and the building was of its time.

Peter Rice, second left - a daringly imaginative engineer

But it wasn’t all about prestigious signature projects. The director of the Full-Moon Theatre recalls Rice’s commitment to the plan to illuminate the open-air amphitheatre at Gourgoubès, in the Languedoc, solely by the light of the moon.

Rice’s widow Sylvia, three daughters and his son recall the playful, ever-ebullient family man, who always talked to his children as equals, but hated losing at badminton. Home movie footage, some of which was taken at his 50th birthday, shows the boyish side.

"I see him as an artist, a poet, a sculptor engineer, or engineer sculptor, a humanist, a Brunelleschi of recent times," the architect Richard Rogers declared in the book, Traces of Peter Rice which was published by Lilliput Press in 2013. "He crossed boundaries, stimulated all our imaginations and was always optimistic."

In the book, Renzo Piano recalls the construction of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and " a building for culture that looked like a machine, that was the opposite of monumentality and intimidation, of marble buildings."

BAFTA Award-winning cinematographer Marcus Robinson directs the film with a vibrant use of 35mm time-lapse. The individuals who talk affectionately about Rice are highly-qualified in the areas of design and construction, people who understand the properties of steel and glass. Yet the film taps into the human dimension, the original impulse that made Rice a catalyctic force, driving talented individuals to give of their best.  

Peter Rice in the South of France

Working with local architect Pierre-Louis Carlier, Rice used translucent marble to re-fashion the façade of the nineteenth century Catholic cathedral in Lille, seen to best effect when lit at night. The engineer returned to Mass attendance in later years, according to his wife Sylvia, who recalls amusing conversations, given that she was atheist.

Rice was an an open-hearted individual who valued all opinions and contributions when it came to solving challenging structural problems. Moreover, the fun lay in the challenge and the engineer and his friends would sit late into the night around the table in the Rice family home in Wiltshire talking over each other, while drawing and sketching ideas.

Peter Rice is deemed by his peers to be one of the most important engineers of the 20th century and he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) shortly before his untimely death in 1992, still only in his fifties, following a brain tumour. 

Paddy Kehoe

See it at at selected cinemas nationwide, including IFI Dublin, IFI@Belltable, Limerick, QFT Belfast, The Gate, Cork, Omniplex, Dundalk and further venues.

Read about another Peter Rice-related documentary here, Floating Structures, part of the 2019 Virgin Dublin International Film Festival programme.