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Irvine Sellar: Why I will always respect the 'unreasonable man'

WSP first worked with Irvine in the 90s on some retail and sports centre projects.

I became aware from about 2000 that he had acquired the PwC building, which turned out to be the site for the Shard. This slowly took shape as Irvine and his team developed strong relationships with Southwark, Ken Livingstone and, of course, Renzo Piano.

Throughout the period from about 2001 to late 2003, I followed the project in the press and also through Sellar development director Barry Ostle. As the scheme developed it became clear that the opportunity for WSP to make a formal pitch to Irvine for the job was there.

At the interview we spoke about the two extra hotel floors that could be fitted in to the existing 300 m height, a much reduced weight of steel, and the removal of a redundant tuned mass damper.

Focused, hands-on, driven

Irvine’s focus on value was obvious in all our dealings on projects. He was interested in the consequences of engineering on his investment.

I quickly learned how to communicate to him in compressed timescales and without technical embellishment. He was very interested in ‘three key points’ or ‘the one thing we need is…’.

“He tended to see discussions and information collection like tennis rather than a team pursuit.”

Once on track to achieve an outcome, he drove at it from every angle he and his team could think of. He was also completely and personally hands-on, showing how to get stakeholders and his own team to make progress.

Although there was a pause in the commencement of the Shard from 2004 to about 2007, it turned out Irvine had been securing funding with Qatar. This was a triumph and the ingenuity of Irvine connected to the funding capability of Qatar is the reason London now has its greatest icon.

He used to say that the Shard had indeed demonstrated that London was not a museum and could change. He was also extremely proud of the regeneration the Shard inspired and continues to inspire around London Bridge station.

He sometimes argued that other developers, building owners and landlords should pay him fees or contribution for the increase in land value and desirability of the areas around the Shard – which he had ‘personally’ delivered to them.

All progress depends

At times Irvine could be difficult and critical. He tended to see discussions and information collection like tennis rather than a team pursuit.

On a number of occasions he would quote George Bernard Shaw, who said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Irvine was that unreasonable man but that’s why we have the Shard in London and I will respect the man and his achievement always.

Bill Price is director at WSP

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