Eh up Arup! Laura Gascoigne looks into the real brains behind the public sculptures we don’t need

Plensa: The Dream

Two beavers are standing looking at the Hoover Dam and one says to the other, “I didn’t build it, but it was my design”. Cue laughter. Now picture the same gag line under a cartoon of two artists looking at an enormous public sculpture. The gag still works, but the laughter’s forced. Because while a beaver has an innate grasp of the fundamentals of dam building, your average contemporary artist doodling a landmark sculpture on the back of an envelope could fit his knowledge of structural engineering on the other side.

This might bother a beaver, but we’re not fussed. In a world of ever narrowing specialisations, we habitually depend on the skills of others. Renaissance artists working in the public sphere were expected to master the principles of construction: Michelangelo and Raphael were architects, Leonardo was an engineer. But in this age of alpha males rather than Renaissance men, our public artists only seem able to function with specialist support from Ove Arup.

For a decade, the global firm of structural engineers which cut its teeth on the Sydney Opera House has kindly put itself at the disposal of contemporary sculptors in distress. A regional development agency, say, has commissioned a landmark sculpture you have absolutely no idea how to construct: simply summon the Arup genie from the bottle and all your structural worries will disappear. With added Arup, you can aim higher and think bigger. The firm can turn any 3-D dream into reality, and if you split the money with them you can take all the credit. They won’t mind, it’s just a job to them. When it’s over they’ll go back to doing something useful with their time, like building bridges.

Search the small print of the biggest public art commissions of the past decade, and the magic name of Arup will appear. If it’s a massive sculpture lifting the profile of a blighted skyline, Arup will be behind it holding it up. Conveniently, the firm seems to have an office in every northern town. When St Helens Council commissioned Jaume Plensa’s The Dream – the 20m