Monday interview: Neem Hussain

Share this article

NEEM Hussain is nervous and the strain is showing in the slight sheen of sweat on his brow. He is a bridge designer, not a politician. Yet here he is worried about having to be careful with his words, aware he is being watched intently by his clients at Transport Scotland while trying to speak about the new bridge he plans to build across the Forth.

Like any major transport project, the new Forth road bridge project is dogged with controversy. Scotland, in particular, loves to pour outrage on anything the government tries to build – be it the M74 extension or Edinburgh trams.

It is true that the new Forth replacement crossing is breathtakingly expensive, and at a time when the public purse can ill- afford lavish expenditure. But the budget has been slimmed from about 4 billion to around 2.3bn. And while debates rage about whether a new bridge is necessary now or later, or how the Scottish Government will scrape the money together, the new bridge is going ahead.

Building is likely to start in 2011, and the man who will change one of Scotland's most iconic views is Hussain.

In the bridge-building world Hussain is a hotshot. Born in Pakistan and living in Hong Kong, he is the global bridge leader for engineering giant Arup, which has employed him since 1969.

The list of bridges he has designed is lengthy, and many are recognisable by even those who don't think they know about these things. There is the curvy Oresund bridge, the 10km span linking Denmark and Sweden. In the UK, there is the Hulme Arch, a small and deceptively simple bridge in Manchester that consists of a graceful parabola spanning diagonally from one side of the road to the other. Of the bridges he has designed, this is Hussain's favourite.

"We came up with this idea of a diagonal arch which has now been copied every where, there is one on Glasgow," he says . "It is not a huge thing, it doesn't have to be. It is delicate. You should see it at night time."

Hussain was seemingly destined to build bridges. His father was a bridge builder, working on the Indian railways before partition. Hussain wanted to be an architect, but in 1960s Pakistan there was little opportunity to study it, so he followed in his father's footsteps and studied engineering. When he got to the UK, he did study architecture. Now he is satisfied that he combines the two disciplines.

He muses: "It is very nice to combine engineering and architecture. You can't disassociate them. It is actually building an object. It can be very sculptural. And from an engineering point of view, it is a very pure object. You are literally bridging a gap."

Although he has built bridges across the world, Hussain says this one across the Forth is special to him, emotional. This is not only because his wife is Scottish, and her brother, a Fifer, is keen to see the thing built. The link goes back further.

Hussain recalls how he was hitch-hiking across Scotland in the 1960s, when, he admits, he had much more hair. Catching a ferry, he was astounded by the sight of the new road bridge being built. The 19th-century rail bridge was already familiar to him, its view a decoration on biscuit tins remembered from his post-colonial childhood. He wondered what it would be like to build such a bridge.

Plans for the Forth crossing have been in flux – now Transport Scotland believes it will keep the old road bridge, as it is estimated the bridge can be maintained by replacing its deteriorating cables. The iconic view across the Forth will, from 2016, include three bridges. "My idea," says Hussain of his bridge, "is to take your breath away."

The new bridge will be slim, as slim as possible – he describes it as "a blade of light across the Firth". A cable-stay bridge with three towers, it will the longest of such bridges in the world. Although he is not setting out to make world records.

He is excited about the prospect of three bridges, each representing the latest techniques of each of the past three centuries.

"You have a 19th century bridge with three towers, the 20th century road bridge with two towers. Visually you have a beautiful symmetry, the 21st century bridge also with three towers. It couldn't have been better," he enthuses.

Nor does he like the word "technical challenge". He prefers "design opportunity". When he says it, it doesn't sound smarmy, it sounds enthusiastic. "A design opportunity is fun. There has to be fun in doing this thing."

According to Hussain, the biggest challenge crossing the Forth will be making the three tower cable stay bridge as slim as possible. This also saves money: less material means lower costs.

Of course, cost is a vexed issue. His budget has effectively been slashed since the government came up with the 2.3bn figure, albeit some of this comes from changes to the design of approach roads, and the fact that the new bridge won't be built with the idea that one day it may carry a tram. Instead, if in the event a tram goes across the Forth, it will likely be borne by the old road bridge.

"You always have to design with the budget in mind. What that means is maybe you have to put in more design effort," says Hussain.

"I can show you many bridges where a lot of material has been used. The bridges look heavy. There are many places where we can cut the material amount down. And that comes about through good design. That is going back to challenging everything and not taking everything for granted, taking it from a fundamental first principles point of view. It is very easy to repeat. It is very easy to copy, very easy to do the same thing again. That is not going to give you progress."

He adds: "For any public sector work and I design around the world – I am working in Hong Kong, China, Korea, India – every place has fundamental issues of trying to save money."

And it is true. He loves working in China – the day Hussain speaks to The Scotsman, his latest project in Hong Kong, the Stonecutters Bridge, was lifted.

According to Hussain the Chinese are doing "some of the best design in the world", albeit he says their construction quality is "probably, erm, lagging behind".

A few days after the interview, he sends an e-mail. He wants to change the answer to one of the questions he was asked, which should have been a simple one for a bridge builder: what is your favourite bridge?

At the time he said it was the Millennium Bridge in London – the so-called wobbly bridge across the Thames between St Pauls and the Tate Modern. Yes it may have wobbled, but to Hussain it is "elegant and beautiful".

His other favourite bridge is Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge – at least one example of Brunel's work is likely to be a prerequisite for the list kept by anyone with an interest in bridge design.

Clearly Hussain is still a little worried: "The question about the favourite bridge threw me," wrote Hussain.

"Thinking about it, it has to be the Forth Railway Bridge. It is a beautifully-engineered, honest bridge, robust but elegant. One can see how the forces flow and the whole bridge is wonderfully proportioned and it has lasted over a 100 years and performed better than the road suspension bridge.

"I hope the new bridge will be a good 21st century neighbour to the railway bridge."

The answer may have been politic, but it shows he how he does love it. Until he builds the new Forth bridge, it is his favourite.

BACKGROUND

NAEEM Hussain, 65, who was born in Pakistan, studied engineering at West Pakistan University in Lahore.

He moved to the UK and studied architecture at the School of Architecture in London, then took an MSC in concrete structures at Imperial College.

In 1969 he joined engineering practice Arup. During his 40 years there, Hussein's work has taken him around the world to work on bridge projects from Malaysia, Saudia Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, Spain, the United States, Hong Kong and Korea.

From 1986, he project-managed various UK engineering projects, including the Channel Tunnel Rail Link between London and the Channel Tunnel.

His award-winning Hulme Arch in Manchester was described as "the showpiece for the civil engineering profession".

Since 1998, Hussain has been based in Hong Kong, overseeing the development and completion of the Stonecutters Bridge, which spans the Rambler Channel in Hong Kong's Harbour.

Married to a Scot, Hussain and his family also have a home in Glasgow's city centre.