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7 iconic arts and culture venues made possible by civil engineers

28 July 2023

A tour of some of the most fascinating structures crafted by the hands and minds of civil engineers.

7 iconic arts and culture venues made possible by civil engineers
These venues were made possible by the creativity of civil engineers. Image credit: Shutterstock

As the ICE’s 145th president, Paul Jowitt said, there’s a heavy emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the civil engineering industry.

But, in Paul’s words, the most skilled engineers also need some ‘“A”’ - awareness, attitude, aptitude, application, aspiration, art!’

Without the imagination and creativity of civil engineers, some of the most significant arts venues that we all know and love wouldn’t exist.

Beyond being fascinating structures, these seven venues also have the power to bring communities together.

1. The Royal Albert Hall, London, United Kingdom

royal albert hall
The Royal Albert Hall. Image credit: Shutterstock

Prince Albert harboured an ambitious vision of a space that would promote and celebrate the arts and sciences.

Civil engineers Francis Fowke and Henry Young Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers brought this vision to life when the Royal Albert Hall opened its doors in 1871.

The building is encircled by an 800-feet frieze aptly called ‘The Triumph of Arts and Letters’, which pays tribute to eminent figures of artistic creativity, manufacturing, and education.

Since its opening in the 19th century, the Royal Albert has hosted events ranging from ballet to the Royal Variety Performance.

It’s also been home to ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ since 1941.

It’s partnered with charities, including the Donne Foundation, to promote gender equality in music.

Its engagement programme also seeks to transform lives through music – working with local communities and providing workshops and talks that support pathways into the music industry.

2. The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

the louvre museum
The Louvre Museum. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Louvre Museum is the world’s most-visited art museum.

It’s home to some of the most celebrated pieces of art in the Western world, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon.

It first began life as a medieval fortress, before being transformed into a renaissance-style Royal Residence.

It opened its doors to the public in 1793, during the French Revolution.

Divided over four pavilions and spanning three main wings, the museum is the perfect blend of gothic antiquity and innovation.

In 1983, architect Ieoh Ming Pei was tasked with designing a new entrance to the Louvre to accommodate the increasing number of visitors.

Engineers Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd.of Montreal, and Rice Francis Ritchie of Paris were on hand to bring his vision to life.

Despite facing some early criticisms, today Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid is viewed as an iconic landmark, tied to the image of the Louvre and modern-day Paris.

The pyramid’s glass structure provides ample natural light for visitors in the underground spaces of the museum.

Its inauguration also enhanced the visitor experience, tripling the Louvre’s surface area, doubling the exhibition space and helping welcome more visitors to the museum than ever before.

3. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California

walt disney concert hall
The Walt Disney Concert Hall. Image credit: Shutterstock

Designed by architect Frank Gehry, this celebrated arts venue has enchanted visitors since it opened in 2003.

The venue’s curved stainless-steel exterior, with its symphony of angles and shapes, was made possible due to computer-aided-three-dimensional interactive application, or CATIA.

By using CATIA’s advanced modelling capabilities, Cosentini Associates, the engineering firm behind the structure, were able to translate Gehry’s complex vision into a reality.

Now home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the creation of the Walt Disney Concert Hall was made possible partly due to a donation of $50 million by Lillian Disney, Walt Disney’s widow.

Her donation was motivated by a desire to gift the people of Los Angeles with a performance venue and as a tribute to her late husband’s love of the arts.

4. The Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

sydney opera house
The Sydney Opera House. Image credit: Shutterstock

Perched on the banks of Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House is a testament to engineering and architectural brilliance.

Designer Jørn Utzon envisaged its shell structure as sails soaring over the venue’s auditorium, but this option proved financially unsustainable.

Engineers working on the project devised an innovative solution using pre-cast concrete ribs to create the complex curved shapes of the shells.

Computer-aided design (CAD) technology optimised the shell designs for the complex forces they would encounter. This was one of the earliest uses of computers in building and design.

Since its opening in 1973, it has evolved into a thriving arts and culture venue, with everyone from rock ‘n roll giants the Rolling Stones to Luciano Pavarotti taking to the stage.

In 2007 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site – an acknowledgement of its incredible achievements in the arts, architecture, and engineering.

5. The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

guggenheim museum bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum. Image credit: Shutterstock

Another brainchild of architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum features groundbreaking works from the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Yayoi Kusama.

The museum is intended to resemble a ship at the dock, with its titanium panels giving it its spectacular shimmering effect.

Engineers at Ferrovial Construction created the appearance of a dock through the museum’s foundation, which was a mixture of clay and riverbed mud.

A colossal 650 concrete pillars were driven into the bedrock, with the reinforcement of the foundation requiring 25,000 tons of concrete.

As of 2022, it attracted up to one million visitors annually, creating a vast economic uplift.

This impact has led to the ‘Bilbao effect’, which describes the phenomenon where cultural investment revitalises cities’ economies.

6. The National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing, China

national centre for performing arts
The National Centre for Performing Arts. Image credit: Shutterstock

Also known as ‘the giant egg’ due to its unique dome-shaped structure, the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) is home to multiple performance venues, including an opera house, concert, and theatre hall.

Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the NCPA is the largest theatre complex in Asia.

At a colossal 212-metres long, its exterior comprises 18,000 titanium plates and 1,000 sheets of ultra white glass.

It extends ten stories underground, meaning 60% of the building is underground!

Beyond playing host to world-class opera productions, it also runs a host of educational and community outreach projects.

7. The Barbican Centre, London, United Kingdom

the barbican
The Barbican Centre. Image credit: Shutterstock

When it comes to arts and culture hubs, it doesn’t get much more versatile than the Barbican Centre.

Its cultural offerings range from theatre and performance, to outdoor cinema, a public library, and architecture tours that help you uncover its fascinating history.

The complex incorporates elevated walkways, called pedways, that connect various parts of the Barbican Estate, leading to its labyrinth-like structure.

The grade II building, designed in the brutalist style by Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon, won the ‘Most Sustainable Venue’ at the London Venue & Catering Awards in 2019 and 2021.

Its sustainability initiatives include reusing materials from exhibitions and theatres, encouraging biodiversity, and its commitment to reducing its operations to net-zero by 2027.

  • Jessica Beasley, communications executive at ICE