One of the most distinguished building engineers of the 20th century, Peter Rice was instrumental in the construction of some of the most iconic works of architecture in our world today. From the Sydney Opera House to the Pompidou in Paris, Rice's imaginative work is examined in this documentary.


 

Documentaries are, by their nature, all about niche subjects and characters. The idea is that the format can bring to life the story and the characters involved, and make it relatable in a way that audiences can understand it. Whether it's Soviet Union ice hockey politics, the psychology of killer whales, or even building engineering, the skill is in translating an austere and dense topic into something understandable.

What 'An Engineer Imagines' does so smartly and assiduously is that it doesn't focus in on the technical aspects of Peter Rice's work or even the man himself. Instead, what you have is the structures that he helped to build in action, with people interacting with them through timelapse photography. This gives it a vitality and eccentricity in something that is, by its very nature, inert and unmoving. It's a huge building, but through intimate discussions about Rice's attitudes and creativity, they come alive in the telling. They're living, breathing creatures that Rice has willed into existence.

Again, there is nothing technical about it. You don't come out the other side of 'An Engineer Imagines' with a deeper understanding of building engineering and structural mechanics, but rather it gives voice and form to an artistry and creativity that we all recognise. What's made clear is that Rice was truly a bright and imaginative mind, who was able to put the wildest fantasies into reality - without losing that spark of creativity. As one of the architects acknowledges, the role of an engineer is so often to say "no" - something that Rice himself hated to do.

Marcus Robinson's use of photography and narration by Michael McElhatton blends easily with the dream-like music and visuals, but it's the small moments when people talk about Rice's work that you see the emotional core come out. That so many of them well up, or drift off mid-speech in deep sadness, is a testament to the reverence and the impact he had on their lives. If there's a complaint against 'An Engineer Imagines', it's that its short runtime doesn't quite allow it to explore the minutiae. Then again, maybe that's the point - the finer details can drag it all down and lose the artistry and the magic of it.


Beautiful, poetic, moving and unrestrained, 'An Engineer Imagines' is the finest Irish documentaries made this year, so far.