Peter Rice: Performing Instability

By Greg Kerr

Fig 1, gerberette, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, © author

Fig 1. Gerberette, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2014, © author.

Among the more striking aspects of the first maquette submitted by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers Gianfranco Franchini, John Young and Ove Arup & Partners as part of their successful 1971 competition entry for the design of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris was the use of large capitalized fragments of text across the model’s façade: ‘COMPUTER TECHNIQUE FOR THE PRODUCTION OF ANIMATED MOVIES’ reads one. ‘CAROLINE / GO TO KANSAS CITY / IMMEDIATELY / YOUR FRIEND / LINDA HAS BEEN / BUSTED’ another.[1] Displayed alongside mass-media images of soldiers in the Vietnam War and crowds, they inscribe vividly the idea of the centre as itself a permanently unfolding event, conceived of primarily, as the panel of judges commented, as an ‘immense écran’ or a ‘miroir offrant un jeu constamment changeant d’images et de reflets’.[2] It is a conception which permeates the (somewhat deviating) architectural features of the completed building, through the dramatic transferral of functional elements (such as escalators, pipes and plumbing) to the exterior. In order to maximize the effect of that transferral, a structural solution was required which would allow the façade to remain as unobstructed in visual terms as possible, enabling the public to circulate throughout the building with unprecedented ease, and moreover offering this circulatory activity as spectacle to those observing the Centre from the outside. This solution was perhaps most famously provided by the gerberette, a cast steel cantilever beam which punctuates the façade at regular intervals, noticeably at the pedestrian walkways stretching along the upper floors (Fig 1). Originating in the bridge designs of the nineteenth-century German engineer Heinrich Gottfried Gerber, the successful implementation of this feature is most often attributed to the Irish engineer Peter Rice (1935-1992), a regular collaborator of both Rogers and Piano. The gerberette acts in the manner of a see-saw: as a trussed beam pushes down on one end, the longer exterior end lifts. As a result, the outside row of columns, rather than having to hold up the trussed beam, instead hold the gerberette down, becoming tension ties. The weight of the floors is transferred to the outside of the building. Slender diagonal cross bracing adds lateral stability, and material obstructions are minimized.

Rice’s gerberette presents an expressive solution to the problem of how to maximize the visibility of the façade, isolating structural elements, punctuating the columns and articulating the ensemble in a readily perceptible way. The effect is to ‘orchestrate the drama of a structure as a balancing act’, engendering, as Christian Penzel writes, ‘a precisely calculated image on the edge of instability’.[3] As the terms of the foregoing citation anticipate, this non-specialist article focuses on the legacy of Rice, evident as much in the gerberette, as in his contribution to a variety of other grands projets which were erected throughout the city of Paris in the closing decades of the twentieth century. It speculates that the structures to which Rice made such a singular contribution might mark an important stage in the movement towards what critics have lately come to term a performative architecture, underpinned by a shift of emphasis ‘from what the building is to what it does, defining the first by means of the second’.[4]

Enjoying a vogue in contemporary cultural studies, performativity offers a useful framework through which to understand the particularity of the systems devised by Rice. Deriving from the speech act theory of J.L. Austin, which reveals the productive specificity of statements which do not simply describe a given action, but in fact perform that action as they are uttered[5], performatives have opened onto the question of how identities are constructed by language and gesture, a focus of enquiry developed more recently by theorists such as Judith Butler. The critical potential of performativity within the non-linguistic domains of architecture and engineering has in turn been theorized in some recent volumes, and this short article is intended primarily to complement some of the findings of those studies.[6] As any survey of the latter shows, Rice’s work is by no means the sole exponent of the performative within these domains, but the buildings to which he contributed are marked by a consistent and coherent preoccupation with some of the fundamentals of a performative imaginary, amongst them: a newfound emphasis on the productive qualities of the dynamisms, loads and tensions with which a building is engaged (‘what a building does­’ – or, perhaps more precisely in Rice’s case, ‘how a building acts’); the transferral of structure to elements previously considered to be incapable of load-bearing potential (for instance, glass or fabric), and an orientation towards ‘spectacular’ modes of engaging the viewer.[7] Marking a distinctive contribution towards an emerging aesthetics of performance and the event in architecture which is present in the work of contemporaries such as Bernard Tschumi, Rice’s structures stage the conditions of their own dynamic persistence in space and time, distancing themselves from a language of objectified forms.

Fig 2, serre, Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, Paris, © author

Fig 2. Serre, Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, Paris, 2014, © author.

As is clear from Rice’s 1994 book An Engineer Imagines, the progress of his career over the latter half of the twentieth century tracks closely that of an illustrious set of architectural projects familiar to a broad public.[8] Moreover, this largely autobiographical text reveals a long-standing commitment to distinctive, small scale works marked by considerable creative and technical audacity; throughout these works we find what Rice referred to as ‘les traces de la main’, namely the bespoke contribution of the engineer, manifest in the recourse to special materials such as cast steel, particularized systems of assemblage, and individually constructed pieces, all of which are intended to invite an active engagement on the part of the viewer. From his contribution as part of a team working to construct the roof of the Sydney Opera House in the early 1960s, to projects such as the Centre Pompidou and Richard Rogers & Partners’ Lloyd’s of London redevelopment, Foster Associates’ Stansted Airport terminal building, the stained glass façade of the Cathédrale Nôtre Dame de la Treille in Lille, to the moonlight-reflecting mirrors which illuminate the Humbert Camberlo’s  Théâtre de la Pleine Lune at Gourgoubès in Provence, the structures to which Rice contributed are marked by a dynamic and often playful articulation of space, light and texture.

A brief overview of the artful orchestration of the functionalities of built structures within Rice’s work might begin with a consideration of the serres at Adrien Fainsilber’s Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie at La Villette (Fig 2).[9] The engineering firm Rice Francis Ritchie was invited to develop this series of façades bioclimatiques adjoining the main building of the Cité, leading to what Rice termed an ‘essay in the nature of transparency’[10]: a concerted attempt to reconcile a maximal passage of natural light into an interior with minimal perceptible structure. Rice is at pains to stress that the serres do not correspond to a complete, pre-existing design conception, but are ‘le résultat d’une longue recherche menée pour comprendre le comportement du verre ainsi que des fixations, câbles et structures qui le portent’; precisely such an analysis of the possible reconciliation of structure and tension is outlined in the book Le Verre structurel, a French-language volume which he co-authored with Hugh Dutton, and which has since been translated into English, German and Italian.[11] The specificity and originality of the cable-braced glass walls of the serres lie in part in the fact that they counter intuitive perceptions about the source of the structure’s stability, composed as the latter is of panes of glass stacked one on top of the other, without a mullion frame: it is in fact this somewhat theatrically conceived ‘rideau de verre suspendu’[12], a rigid glass plane loaded along its axis, which provides the cable trusses with their stability. In the article ‘Unstable Structures’, Rice explains that the system is achieved by having two counteracting axes of rotation, along the axis of the glass, and where the cables cross.[13] A photograph on the rear cover of Le Verre structurel shows the grinning engineer performing a pull-up on one of the cables at La Villette, and there is indeed something of the high-wire act in the way in which resistance and tension are maintained counter to intuitive expectations.[14]

Fig 3, Pyramide inversée, Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, © author

Fig 3. Pyramide inversée, Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, 2014, © author.

A similarly spectacular effect is achieved by the pyramide inversée located in the shopping area of the Carrousel du Louvre. Here, the Rice Francis Ritchie firm acted as consulting engineers on a project authored by I.M. Pei, the architect more widely noted for the monumental glass pyramid in the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre Palace. At the Carrousel, light is diffused downwards from the ceiling and reflected outwards around an underground junction by a glass-walled pyramid (Fig 3). Through an intricate system based on bolts, trusses and cables – the latter held in tension by the weight of the glass, the entire structure holds together without the need for sealant between the panes comprising each surface. As Annette Fierro has argued so persuasively, the creative engagement with the idea of transparency in these and other works belonging to the grands projets was supplemented by a set of political connotations coinciding with the bicentenary of the French Revolution. At a symbolic level, transparency was invoked to support a State rhetoric of democratization and ouverture of cultural institutions previously closed to the public. Though their engagement with transparency would seem to recall an artless, absolutely open model of human communication having its origins in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, any close consideration of the works shows that they mark a significant evolution of understanding of the term – retaining the concern with heightened vision, indeed, but with a discrete postmodern emphasis on the staging of the material conditions in which transparency is produced and manipulated – a tangible, if discreet, arrangement of springs, cables and struts, which offers an image of the machinery of spectacle.[15] To engage with such material conditions is to place renewed emphasis on the specificity of the effects produced by many of the constructions themselves (their grammars of light and shade, their ambiguities of space, their surfaces which ‘[oscillent] toujours entre immatérialité et présence’[16], effects which derive in part from a tension between demands of expediency and a desire for experimentation.

Fig 4, Nuages, Grande Arche de la Défense, Paris, © author

Fig 4. Nuages, Grande Arche de la Défense, Paris, 2014, © author.

Further to the rhetorical emphasis on performance in Rice’s writings and comments on his own work, it is useful also to consider the engineer’s deployment of patterns of ‘variation, deviation and redistribution’ of an established language of forms, to recall the terms of Ozum Hatipoglu’s recent analysis of the symbolic dimensions of performativity in Bernard Tschumi’s folies project at the Parc de la Villette.[17] Distributed according to a grid, the folies present a system of 25 dispersed ‘points’ serving different cultural functions throughout the park, the structural form of each of them marking a distinctive variation on that of a cube, though without any individual folie in the grid, in fact, presenting that form.[18] Though he does not elaborate upon his work with anything like the same degree of theoretical sophistication as Tschumi, nonetheless, just as for the architect of the folies, what seems to be at stake in Rice’s approach is a conception which could be less readily accounted for in terms of statics and objectified form, and which would open instead onto a new understanding of the built structure as event. The Teflon-based installation which he developed for the architect Paul Andreu’s Nuages can be viewed in this light (Fig 5). While the original design conception for the cloud structures in fact originates with the architect Johan Otto von Spreckelsen, who fell ill during the course of the La Défense project, as in other projects to which he contributed, it is arguably Rice’s audacious contribution to the technical realisation of the work which remains the most enduring legacy of the Nuages. Located beneath the Grande Arche de la Défense, the piece is intended to evoke the volumes of a cloud, while providing a degree of shelter and humanizing the vast space beneath the monumental arch.

This work presented the engineer with an opportunity to explore potential applications of the translucent lightweight Teflon: ‘What’s interesting is that the kind of shapes you can generate with fabric couldn’t be generated with glass or with other rigid materials. The properties fabric offers give you the opportunity to explore these free forms’.[19] The Nuages are dominated by large sections of the fabric and a complex network of cables attached to the ground and the lateral walls. The Teflon membrane is divided into modules maintained in tension by an arrangement of struts and ring-shaped voids in the fabric; these serve to reorient traction and lighten its underside. Considered in the context of the aesthetic insistence on the play of stresses manifest through the arrangement of cables, these voids or points within the fabric arguably function to abstract the piece from the everyday intimacy of materialized form and to maximize its offering as a play of light, shade and volume approximating to the vapours of a cloud. They can be said to punctuate, interrupt and continually re-orient a space from which they have been abstracted and whose dimensions they no longer delimit in any fixed sense; they are not backgrounds subtending events but themselves constitutive of an event that is inseparable from the tensile qualities of the membrane, cables and intervening space.[20] If the Nuages do succeed in offsetting the prodigious impression left by the Grande Arche, it is therefore not simply because it is at a smaller scale, but because it presents the viewer with a different – differential – logic, which is not that of the homogeneous monumentality of constructed form. This logic of differentiation can be thought of in terms of Benoît Goetz’s influential understanding of the inaugural gesture of architecture as one of an originary dislocation or ‘partage des lieux’, rather than of, for instance, capacity, containment or enclosure.[21] Throughout the work of Rice, it seems that just such a logic of differentiation is enacted periodically, obstructing the gaze which tries to understand these structures in terms of stable, objectified forms. By contrast, glasshouse, inverted pyramid and ‘cloud’ all seem to produce an evolving declension of space into multiple gradations and thresholds. This would seem to account for Rice’s dismissive comments in An Engineer Imagines on the role of photography in the cultural dissemination of representations of architecture, according to which the photographic image is consistent with a logic of reification which underplays the engagement with structural complexity[22]; and it would appear to underscore the engineer’s avowed preference for a French design culture which he felt encouraged a provisional, because primarily verbal, rather than visual, elaboration of the design process in its initial stages, thereby deferring the moment of formalisation by the image.[23] In passing, however, it is worth noting that this position does not anticipate the increasing sophistication of design technologies in the twenty-first century, given that a significant development since Rice’s time is the growing importance of flows and other non-objectified relations within the field of computer-based design in architecture. As Antoine Picon remarks: ‘what one sees on a computer screen is something that happens. In the digital realm, form, architectural form, represents an occurrence; it happens’.[24]

As Fierro has noted, many of the planar glazing systems developed by the Rice Francis Ritchie firm in the context of these and other projects in the 1980s and early 1990s have emerged to be highly commercially successful and functionally operative systems – prevalent in shopping centres and railway stations around the world. It is regrettable that, over twenty years since the era of the grands projets and the death of Rice, some of the structures which offer such dramatic showcases for these systems have effectively fallen into neglect. As of spring 2014, like a set of smaller, more intimate serres which he developed for the Parc André Citroën in Paris, but which are now off limits to park goers (Fig 4), the greenhouses at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie had remained closed to the public and in a state of disuse for a number of years. Staff consulted at both of those sites affirm that the closures are due to the expense and technical difficulty of maintaining them in their original state. An unfortunate potential consequence of this development is that the systems risk being superseded to all intents and purposes by their more ‘effective’ later applications, often in commercial contexts where they can be conscripted firmly back into an order of expediency (ironically, one which is increasingly framed in terms of various ‘performance criteria’ such as ‘efficiency’ or ‘ecological impact’[25]) – which is not the dominant logic of the projects at their inception. The risk in no longer committing to maintain some of these distinctive environments of cable and glass is that the public would thereby be deprived of experiments and spectacles which pose engaging questions about issues of stability, transparency and structural form.[26]



Concours international pour la réalisation du centre Beaubourg: rapport du jury. Paris: Établissement public du centre Beaubourg, 1971.

Austin, J. L.. How To Do Things With Words: The William James Lectures, Delivered At Harvard University in 1955. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Barry, Kevin, ed. Traces of Peter Rice. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2012.

Baudrillard, Jean. L’Effet Beaubourg: implosion et dissuasion. Paris: Galilée: 1977.

Derrida, Jacques. Psyché: Inventions de l’autre II. Paris: Galilée, 2003.

Fierro, Annette. The Glass State: The Technology of Spectacle, Paris 1981-1998. London: MIT Press, 2003.

Goetz, Benoît. La dislocation: architecture et philosophie. Paris: Éditions de la Passion: 2001.

Hatiplogu, Ozum. ‘Performing Objects: Folies in Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette,’ French Studies Bulletin, 35, no. 131 (Summer 2014): 23-25.

Heilbrunn, Benoît. ‘La virtuosité, nœud de la performance.’ In La Performance, une nouvelle idéologie? Critique et enjeux, edited by Benoît Heilbrunn, 43-58. Paris: La Découverte, 2004.

Leatherbarrow, David. ‘Architecture’s Unscripted Performance.’ In Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality, edited by Branko Kolarevic and Ali M. Malkawi, 7-19. London: Spon Press, 2005.

Penzel, Christian. ‘The Culture of Construction: Examples from the Last Fifty Years of a Remarkable Development.’ In Cooperation: The Architect and the Engineer, edited by Aita Flury, 41-56. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012.

Picon, Antoine. ‘Architecture as Performance Art.’ In Performalism: Form and Performance in Digital Architecture, edited by Yasha J. Grobman and Eran Neuman, 15-19. London: Routledge, 2012.

Picon-Lefebvre, Virginie. ‘Travaux d’ingénieurs,’ Le Moniteur Architecture, 15 (October 1990): 30-49.

Rice, Peter. An Engineer Imagines. London: Artemis, 1994; repr. London: Ellipsis Press, 1996.

———. ‘Gleichgewicht und Spannung / Equilibre et tension,’ Archithese, 2 (1990): 84-96.

———. ‘Unstable Structures,’ Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory, 1 (1992): 71-89.

Rice, Peter and Hugh Dutton, Le Verre structurel. Paris: Éditions du Moniteur, 1990.

Silver, Nathan. The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou. Paris: MIT Press, 1997.


[1] Nathan Silver, The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou (Paris: MIT Press, 1997), 32.

[2] Concours international pour la réalisation du centre Beaubourg: rapport du jury (Paris: Établissement public du centre Beaubourg, 1971), 95.

[3] Christian Penzel ‘The Culture of Construction: Examples from the Last Fifty Years of a Remarkable Development’, Cooperation: The Architect and the Engineer, ed. Aita Flury (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012), 49.

[4] David Leatherbarrow, ‘Architecture’s Unscripted Performance’, in Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality, ed. Branko Kolarevic and Ali M. Malkawi (London: Spon Press, 2005), 7.

[5] As in the example, ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’. J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words: The William James Lectures, Delivered At Harvard University in 1955 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962), 5.

[6] See, for instance:  Branko Kolarevic and Ali M. Malkawi, eds., Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality (London: Spon Press, 2005) and Yasha J. Grobman and Eran Neuman, eds., Performalism: Form and Performance in Digital Architecture (London: Routledge, 2012).

[7] On this latter point, Benoît Heilbrunn notes in a study of the phemonenon: ‘Le spectacle concerne le processus de production en train de se faire, dans sa potentialité, il exhibe ce que les hommes peuvent être et faire. Nous sommes bien ici au cœur de la performance’. Benoît Heilbrunn, ‘La virtuosité, nœud de la performance’, La Performance, une nouvelle idéologie ? Critique et enjeux, ed. Benoît Heilbrunn (Paris: La Découverte, 2004), 56-57.

[8] Peter Rice, An Engineer Imagines (London: Artemis, 1994; repr. London: Ellipsis Press, 1996). The essays collected in the following volume are also of considerable biographical interest: Traces of Peter Rice, ed. Kevin Barry (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2012).

[9] ‘Du point de vue spatial, l’ambition du projet des serres était d’obtenir un maximum de transparence unilatéral et bilatéral, c’est-à-dire de rendre l’espace intérieur de la serre aussi lumineux que possible et d’accorder à la vue, tant depuis l’extérieur que depuis l’intérieur et à travers le bâtiment, une place primordiale’. Peter Rice and Hugh Dutton, Le Verre structurel (Paris: Éditions du Moniteur, 1990), 17.

[10] Rice, An Engineer Imagines, 72.

[11] Rice and Dutton, Le Verre structurel, 17.

[12] Rice and Dutton, Le Verre structurel, 23.

[13] Peter Rice, ‘Unstable Structures’, Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory, 1 (1992): 86.

[14] Likewise, in an extended (though somewhat critical) essay on the interplay of equilibrium and tension in the work of the architect Santiago Calatrava, Rice notes the latter’s fondness for ‘jeux d’équilibre acrobatiques’, Peter Rice, ‘Gleichgewicht und Spannung / Equilibre et tension’, Archithese, 2 (1990): 85. Elsewhere, citing a personal fascination with the dramas of horse racing and football matches, he emphasises the spectatorial appeal of built structures further: ‘Je veux susciter une réaction chez les gens. Tout le monde a des idées sur ce qui est stable ou déséquilibré, et je veux jouer là-dessus’. Quoted in: Virginie Picon-Lefebvre, ‘Travaux d’ingénieurs’, Le Moniteur Architecture, 15 (October 1990) : 48.

[15] Fierro’s study The Glass State succeeds in eliciting this underlying ambiguity, through a focus on some of the more politically ambivalent or unsettling aspects of the implementation of the grands projets; she reveals how ‘great possibilities of authoritative vision’ are muddied by the ‘disquieting presence of authoritarian rule’. Annette Fierro, The Glass State: The Technology of Spectacle, Paris 1981-1998 (London: MIT Press, 2003), 2. In a more incendiary vein, a much earlier essay by Jean Baudrillard condemned the Centre Pompidou and its ‘effet Beaubourg’, arguing that the building presents an ‘espace de dissuasion’ grounded in an ideology of visibility and transparency which, Baudrillard claims, forms the conflicted basis of social relations in the contemporary period. Jean Baudrillard, L’Effet Beaubourg: implosion et dissuasion (Paris: Galilée, 1977), 13.

[16] Rice and Dutton, Le Verre structurel, 14.

[17] Following Hatipoglu’s analysis of the dispersed formal grid pattern of the folies: ‘None of the Folies has the structure of a cube, but each Folie is the variation, deviation and redistribution of the structure of a cube. However, if none of the Folies has the structure of a cube, where is the cube? The cube is the symbol. It is the pure spatial difference of the Folies’ distinct structural displays’, Ozum Hatiplogu, ‘Performing Objects: Folies in Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette’, French Studies Bulletin, 35, no. 131 (Summer 2014), 25.

[18] In this instance, it is interesting to note that Rice was employed to engineer the undulating structure of the canopy-lined walkway which is a distinctive feature of Tschumi’s project.

[19] Rice, An Engineer Imagines, 103.

[20] Indeed, these aspects of the structure can be read in the light of a set of comments by Jacques Derrida on the limit figure of the point in Tschumi’s design for La Villette : ‘si on le considère absolument, abstrait de l’ensemble et en lui-même […], le point n’est plus un point, il n’a plus l’indivisibilité atomique qu’on prête au point géométrique’. […] Ouvert en son dedans par un vide qui donne du jeu aux pièces, il se construit/déconstruit comme un cube offert à une combinaison formelle. Les pièces articulées se disjoignent, composent et recomposent. Le dis-joint en articulant des pièces qui sont plus que des pièces, pièces d’un jeu, pièces de théâtre, pièces habitables, à la fois des lieux et des espaces de mouvement, les figures promises à des événements : pour qu’ils aient lieu’. Jacques Derrida, Psyché: Inventions de l’autre II (Paris: Galilée, 2003), p. 104.

[21] ‘La dislocation n’est pas un événement qui arrive dans l’espace, ni même à l’espace. L’espace est dislocation. L’espace, c’est la disjonction des lieux, le partage originel qui ne cesse d’avoir lieu. La dislocation n’est pas d’abord ce qui détruit, déconstruit ou ravage le lieu. Elle est d’abord la condition de toute localisation, à savoir le partage des lieux.’ Benoît Goetz, La dislocation: architecture et philosophie (Paris : Éditions de la Passion, 2001), p. 28.

[22] Rice, An Engineer Imagines, 127.

[23] Rice, An Engineer Imagines, 141.

[24] Antoine Picon, ‘Architecture as Performance Art’, Performalism: Form and Performance in Digital Architecture (London: Routledge, 2012), 17.

[25] ‘In a penetrating essay published a few years ago, the philosopher Paul Virilio evokes the growing domination of ‘what happens’. As a performing art, or to be more accurate, an art the productions of which are now supposed to perform at various levels, from the ecological footprint to the realm of effects, architecture has become a component of this domination’, Picon, ‘Architecture as Performance Art’, 18.

[26] In fact, a certain degree of functional ‘inadequacy’ may be integral to their significance as performative structures: ‘À partir du moment où le travail me permet de m’exposer à un public et donc d’assurer une performance, se pose la question de la singularité de mon action. Car performance ne signifie pas systématiquement accomplissement’, Heilbrunn, ‘La virtuosité, nœud de la performance’, 57).

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Peter Rice: Performing InstabilityAlex Bradley