Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to Owen Luder, Architect and one-time Prince of 20th Century Brutalism, who saw his once-lauded monuments destroyed before he died

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Owen, who has died at the age of 93, will always be associated  with the architectural style of 'Brutalism', a name that originates from the French 'béton brut', or 'raw concrete' and was coined by the influential Swiss French architect, Le Corbusier, to describe his choice of material in the construction of 'Unité d'Habitation', which he built in Marseilles when Owen was 24  in 1952. Owen was prominent among those British architects who adopted the style in the 1960s and 70s, which was underpinned by the philosophy that truth to construction materials is achieved by their raw expression  characterized  by the use of steel and concrete in massive blocks.  

When he was in his mid twenties in the mid 1950s and after many years of study had finally qualified as a architect with the title 'Owen Luder. Associate of the RIBA' after his name, he reflected : "I wanted to build up my own practice, do my own thing". Doing his 'own thing' he said that : "In the mid 1950s I found myself 'King of the ladies hair dressing salons'. The interesting thing about my career is that so many times I found myself designing building that were in an area of dramatic change". It was a time when Mr Teasy-Weasy and Vidal Sassoon and the whole pattern of womens' hairdressing was changing. He recalled : "I designed Vidal Sasoon's big salon in Bond Street. His contractor effectively built my design. Today I would sue him for breach of copyright, but in those days - get on, move on".(link)

Owen then was commissioned to work on the Tesco store in Pimlico and opened his first office in the summer of 1958 with the help of his wife as secretary and one office boy. The following year he was joined by the 26 year old Rodney Gordon (link) and formed the 'Owen Luder Partnership'. Rodney came from work at the London County Council, where he had designed the Michael Faraday Memorial at Elephant & Castle. He once claimed "architecture should appeal to the emotions. It should give you that feeling from your balls to your throat". Together, with Owen handling the business side and Gordon the designing the practice flourished and Owen said : "It was during these years I built up a team of young architects all thinking as I did".

In the late 1950s they became involved in commercial development after taking over the architectural practice 'Young and Hall' who were specialists in hospital design and later in high security prisons. Owen himself said of such attachments : "Architects were too posh, too aloof, too professional - didn't want to get involved with developments". He estimated that working with property developer, Alec Coleman, he built "millions of pounds of developments that were epoch making. They were iconic buildings" and described his working relationship with Alec as "magical". Owen also had an instinct for press coverage for his work from as early as 1961 and had his projects featured in the 'Summer Exhibition' at the Royal Academy.

Owen also saw this era in his career as a good example of his motto : "'Keep ahead of the game'. You have got to anticipate what is 
happening, what the trends are, what the pressures are for change and then design according to change". Working with Rodney, he produced a range of flats, shopping centres, office and car parks, all recognizable by broad, marked concrete finishes, spiral staircases and strong horizontal and vertical lines like Eros House in Catford in 1963. 

For this he was awarded the RIBA Bronze Medal. 

By 1963 two other partners had joined the partnership and by the mid sixties another branch was opened in Newcastle, in addition to the one in London, to deal with the influx of work in the North East. Following that a number of other offices were opened across the country but the main outlet for the designing of the blueprints remained in the London head office and it was here that he added his imprimatur to his most famous buildings, designed by Rodney Gordon. 

In 1964 Coalville Shopping Centre, Leicester, was part of the quieter, more conventional phase of Owen's career as were less contentious projects such as Hendon Hall Court in North London in 1963 and 16 Grand Avenue in Hove in 1965. He also oversaw the conversion of a Grade II-listed Victorian fire station in West Norwood into the South London Theatre in 1967.

Then, in a burst of Brutalism, starting in 1966, he produced the The Tricorn Centre, a shopping, nightclub and car park complex in Portsmouth, Hampshire, which took its name from the site's shape, which from the air resembled a tricorn hat. The 'Atlas of Brutalist Architecture' described the Tricorn as “a medley of abstract forms in béton brut – orthogonal towers, rocket-like cylinders, graceful horizontal layers, spiralling ramps and zigzagging staircases – it was a study in sculpturalgeometry".

Sherman House in Bromley, Kent came in 1967 and preceeded the Gatehead Shopping Centre, Trinity Square, with its multi-story carpark.(link) 

In 1967 he was elected to the Council of RIBA and said : "Of course I was then the trouble maker, the back-bencher, the one who shouted the odds. I didnt get anywhere. I wasn't considered to be part of the thing. I was the awkward squad".

In 1969 came the Preston Bus Station and three years later in 
1971, millions of cinema goers saw his Trinity House carpark when it took a starring role in Mike Hodges’ sparse and brilliant  gangster film, 'Get Carter'. He used its enormous, haunting structure for the bleak confrontation in which Michael Caine’s Carter killed Bryan Mosley’s corrupt developer, Cliff Brumby, by dumping him over the side of the top story.(link)  

When the commercial development market collapsed in the second half of the 1960s Owen diversified and started to design public sector buildings and a string of high security prisons - Durham, Full Sutton in York, HM Prison Frankland a Category A men's prison located in the village of Brasside in County Durham.He also did contract work for coal mines in the Vale of Durham at this time. In fact, Owen was probably unique in his career in being 'The Architect' to the Royal College of Surgeons and the National Coal Board at the same time.

In 1972 came Dunbar House, Surrey and Derwent Tower, Dunston known as the 'Dunston Rocket' followed by Southgate Shopping Centre, Bath in 1974. 

Also in 1974, Catford Broadway for shopping and housing and Kingston Shopping Centre, Kingston Upon Thames and then in 1976, Wigham House, Barking. He also worked abroad in these years in Saudi Arabia, where he designed the Ministry of Agriculture building in Riyadh and the City Hall in Taif, the summer capital. In Nigeria he designed the National Stadium in Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria and he also advised on the redevelopment of Down Town Little Rock Arkansas, USA. He turned down the invitation to design a high security building in Iran, given its appalling abuse of human rights. 

Recalling 1981 and the RIBA Presidency he said : "I'd never had any aspirations to be President until Gordon Graham refused to have me as his Vice President when he was in his second year as President and that was when I decided : 'Sod this. I would stand for President. I just went on a publicity campaign". Owen met members in regional meetings and in the end won the Presidency with 56% of the vote. Ian Leslie, Editor of 'Building Magazine' wrote : 'In the present climate of depression and uncertainty for the British profession, : Luder seems to offer the possibility of vigorous real world prosecution of the cause of the architectural profession' and that he was 'straight-talking and approachable". 

Owen said : "I became President because of my individual approach, my publicity and ability to promote myself - all those things that come naturally to get that, to win that election. That was, very much, a one-off individualistic thing". Reflecting on his practice he said : "If you want to survive in the commercial world and you want to live with your conscience in it, you have to have integrity. I don't think anybody can ever say of me : "Owen ? He played a fast one on me". I've never done that. It doesn't mean I haven't beaten them, that's a different question". "The philosophy has always been with business-wise and in life generally, that, if in fact I realise that I've made a mistake and I'm going down the wrong track then stop. Think it through. Put it right. Enjoy life you've only got one. So enjoy it while you've got it".

In 1982 with the Construction industry suffering in the economic depression, Owen met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as the Chairman of the 'Group of 8', a body of contractors and trade union leaders. When she tried to drive a wedge between the two and attack the unions he recalled he : "waited for her to take her breath and I just said "Sorry Prime Minister Its not like that " and there was deathly hush and when I went to a reception at Downing Street 3 or 4 weeks later she wouldn't talk to me".
It was in this year that he was given a major assignment by the National Coal to oversee to construction of the Ashfordby Super Coal Pit in the beautiful Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire. He knew that he would have to work with sensitive environmental factors and convinced the Board that they had to have : "an overall consultant who is going to look after everything on the environment, not just the buildings. There would be dirt that had to be dealt with and landscaping and I had to persuade these hard-nosed mining engineers, what the hell this bow-tied architect from London was coming up to tell them how to design coal mines. I told them : "You can't pop out of the ground like a mole and make a mess any longer". 

Owen hired a helicopter and flew the engineers over the site so that they could see the points that he was making and consider the site he had chosen. The Coal Board vetoed his plan to include housing for the miners in the specifications because they said : "miner's wives are married now to miners who are earning so much money that they don't want a miner's village. They want executive housing with a two car garage". After preparatory work and with a budget of £400 million, the pit was sunk in 1986-87 and the rest of the construction, including Owen's brutalist two towers with winding gears took, place before the mine finally opened in 1995.

His RIBA Presidency ran for two years and in 1983 the proposed National Gallery Extension short listed seven schemes and the Architectural Correspondent of the Times said to him :"Owen what do you think of these short listed schemes ?" To which he replied : "Richard Rogers is the only scheme. That s what I think the answer is. Sod it. Take it or leave it". Which Owen said was "perfectly justified, but of course created a hiatus because a RIBA President using the word "sod" in those days really wasn't on". The final scheme by BHK and not Rogers was vilified by Prince Charles who called it "The carbuncle".

In 1987 Owen withdrew from architecture practice and set up 'The Owen Luder Consultancy'. He served as President of the RIBA from 1995-97 and said he had enjoyed his first Presidency "most of the time" but the second 13 years later was more difficult and he sometimes said to himself : "What the hell am I doing this job I'm not even getting paid for ?". Even after his second Presidency he said :  "I am still not really accepted as a member of the Establishment. I can remember when I was elected first time, one fairly eminent architect, I heard say : "What's this guy who designs high security prisons and coal mines doing being President of RIBA ?" 

When the Editor of 'Building' asked Lionel Brett, 4th Viscount Esher his opinion about Owen, he said : "On no, he didn't go to the right school". Owen said : "I don't think the Establishment have ever quite recognised what I had contributed and I was always a radical for change. I've helped change the profession to what it is today. In the 1960s I was saying architects should limit their liabilities and I was being ridiculed and abused and shouted at and told I "got it all wrong". Find me today a practice that operates without limited liability. The buildings I produced in the 1960s were in fact a great influence on what has come afterwards. Michael Heseltine (Minister of the Environment) actually said this. I was sitting on one of the tables as a past Presidents and he was the guest of honour and he came over and said : "Owen, I don't think your profession have recognises what you've done for your profession and that was the greatest accolade I could get from someone like him".(link)

* * * * * * * * * 
Owen was born Harold Owen Mason, the son of single parent, Ellen Mason, in Paddington, West London in the autumn of 1928. Ellen worked as a presser in a company, Berliners, making swimming costumes and to explain his lack of a father, Owen said that he suspected that his "mother was seduced by the boss's son" and he himself then spent the first three years of his life "in the care of well-off foster parents". This explained how he "came to be in photographs, when I'm clearly about two years old, dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a very well-kept garden, by a very well-kept lady".(link)

In 1931, when he was three years old, he rejoined his mother, who had married Ted Luder, an electrician's mate, who, as far as Owen was concerned, was his father and Owen carried his name. When he learned the truth about his real father he said : "It didn't have any impact on my life in those early days, but later on it was a cross I always felt I had to carry" and called Ted, 'The Old Man' to distinguish him from his real father. 

When he was six years old the family moved to Rotherhithe in South London and when he asked his mother why they moved she said it was because the loos were inside the house and he himself said : "In North London they were outside loos and I can vaguely remember the outside loo, the butcher's hook and torn-up newspaper". In 1938 they moved to the Old Kent Road where Owen said that if you grew up there you "have to be streetwise" and "I suppose in a way, that developed in me a sort of resilience, but also delivered in me, without realising it, an ability to be able to judge people. You live in a rough and tough area, you would know some of your neighbours might well be going up West End robbing banks, but you didn't have to lock your front door. You were absolutely safe and if anybody stepped out of line, they would be on them".

Of the women in his life, Owen said that his mother, who was dyslexic, was "very organised", particularly when it came to family finances and that he himself also had that characteristic and his maternal grandmother, who he would frequently see and was : "a great lady, a real old cockney. She used to play the joanna in the pubs and used to sing all the cockney songs". He was eleven when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and said that the house where she was staying was destroyed in a bombing raid. In fact, he stayed in London for the duration of the War and as a boy he enjoyed the excitement and remembered : the unexploded bomb in the garden next door, the front glass blown into his house while the family were in the back; the cannister bomb he saw caught in a tree; collecting parachute silk and bomb shrapnel; the VI flying bomb which flew parallel to the bus on which he was travelling. When it came to working the stirrup pump for his father to put out the fire caused by the incendiary bomb which had come through the ceiling and set fire to a bedroom he said : "I wasn't scared. If I'm faced with a problem situation I'm very pragmatic and I will not panic, take it in my stride, analyze what the problem is and what I should do". 

Having passed his 11+ examination, Owen, joined the nearest grammar school, Peckham Secondary School for Girls and he remembered the Headmistress who :"was a ferocious Irish lad called Miss O'Reilly" who put him in, at the age of 12, for the 'technical scholarship' for a place in an engineering school. When he went for his interview he recalled he was asked : "What do you want to do ?" and of course I said : "I want to design aeroplanes and spitfires". "Oh" she said. "We'll put you down for an engineering school at Brixton. But you must have a second choice".

"I said : "I haven't got a second choice". She said : "Well,  we're put you down for building". What didn't know was that, even in 1942, the Government were thinking about post-war reconstruction. There would be a lot of engineers, but 'construction', 'building' would have to be the important thing to do and so in April 1942 I found myself at the Building School, Brixton, on a three year junior course, age 13 and within three months of being at the School, I was still mad on aeroplanes and I still loved the spitfire, but I was going to be an architect".

Owen's drive and determination to obtain legitimacy within his chosen profession, was perhaps driven by his perceived failure to achieve legitimacy in his birth. He said : "To be illegitimate was something that, at best, you were very uncomfortable with. You felt it was a cross you didn't want to own up to".  It was a journey which took him 10 years to full membership of the RIBA. At the Building School he "laid bricks, plastered walls, made lead joints and chipped away at masonry" (link) while he demonstrated his drawing skill with his 'Study of City Churches by Cristopher Wren'. By this time he had clearly learnt how to give life to a drawing while drawing a front elevation and had also recognized the importance of being able to think in three-dimensions and draw in two-dimensions. 

At the age of 16 he completed his studies, left the School and got his first job in an architect's office and recalled : 
"Rego Clothier's big factory in Tottenham had been burned down and they got a building license to rebuild it in 1945, before the War had finished and of course I was given the job of doing all the drawings. Boy, did I learn fast". Owen now continued his studies with evening classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic, then, although the War was over, at the age of 18, had his career and studies interrupted when he was conscripted into the Army for two years in 1946. Joining the Royal Engineers, he became, partly through his ability to use a typewriter, the 'Temporary Chief, Leave and Pay Clerk' and was on draft to be posted to the hot spot in Palestine, but despite the fact that he had emerged as a 'crack shot', was excused the posting on account of an injured finger.

When he came out of the Army in 1948, he found that the RIBA had granted special concessions to ex-servicemen, which allowed him to take an intermediate examination at RIBA and having passed, he recalled he "went to the Head of Regent Street Polytechnic and said : Aren't I a clever boy, "I've passed the exam at the end of the second year. Will you put me up the the firth year ?" He said "No way. You're here to learn architecture, not the learn how to pass examinations".  

He now worked in a series of architect's offices to support himself in his studies, planning to spend no more than 18 months in each one. The first in Blackheath, South East London, where he learned "an enormous amount" and designed his first external concrete staircase. When he took his final exam in the RIBA Florence Hall in 1952 and recalled : "By then I was already beginning to get work of my own, private jobs - very small, but that was the beginning". In 1954, at the age of 26, he took his 'Professional Practice' exam and passed. In 2020 at the age of 92, filmed in the RIBA building, he said : "I came galloping through the front doors of this building with my two guinea cheque in my grubby little hand, to sign on as a probationer". 

By this time he was working at Leo Hannen’s firm and, having married Doris Broadstock in 1951 and with a young family to support, had taken on a part-time teaching job. Now, finally a part-time student at RIBA, once he had passed his final exam at the RIBA, he "again, came galloping through the front doors and I was elected. I wanted to be a member of the RIBA, 'a', because I was very proud of the fact that I'd made it, but also I could have those magic words behind my title : 'Owen Luder. Associate of the RIBA' ".

                                           * * * * * * * * * 

In 1998 the first Luder structures to be demolished, were destroyed without opposition and were the two winding towers built in the brutalist style  at the ill-fated Ashfordby Coal Pit. Owen himself said that the pit had been "mothballed" as soon as it was opened in 1995, but the truth is that the pit faced a number of difficulties, not the least from persistent flooding.(link)

Owen's designs included some of the most powerful and raw examples of Brutalist architecture, with massive bare concrete sculptural forms devoid of claddings or decoration - other than their inherent shapes. The British climate, with abundant rain and damp winters, is unkind to such unclad concrete buildings which rapidly become a shabby grey–brown colour and streaked with marks where rainwater has run down the façades. Poor maintenance has often exacerbated these problems.

The second of his buildings to face demolition, when Owen was 76, in 2004, was the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth. Despite receiving awards when built, it was voted, on a number of occasions, one of the 'ugliest buildings in Britain' and that great architectural authority, Prince Charles, described it as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’. The local council even went to the lengths of having a competition to start the demolition with a 100-tone bulldozer called 'Cruncher'. According to the BBC a rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture accompanied these fateful actions. The Tricorn's demolition inspired protests, artworks and graffiti like :  "WARNING – THIS BUILDING MAY PROVOKE INTEREST". The writer and critic Jonathan Meades, said : ‘You don't go knocking down Stonehenge or Lincoln Cathedral. I think buildings like the Tricorn were as good as that. They were great monuments of an age’. (link)

Owen was rare in architectural circles for actually trying to explain his buildings and in 2005 he appeared in an episode of Channel 4's 'Demolition' series based on George Fergusson's proposal for X-listing buildings for priority demolition. When interviewed about Trinity Square, he managed to sway some of its haters, but it was still demolished five years later, all the same.

Owen's Southgate Shopping Centre in Bath had drawn controversy before it was even built, on account of the knocking down of several Victorian and Georgian buildings, some of which were bomb-damaged. Completed in 1971, it was much reviled and despite the fact that it was built in Bath stone and not concrete, in 2007 it was demolished to make way for a development, designed in the classical style, deemed more 'appropriate' to the spa city. Owen accepted the fact that his design no longer served Bath well, though he expressed doubts about the building that replaced it.

Jon Wright of the 'Twentieth Century Society' described the decision to demolish it in 2009 as ‘horribly shortsighted’. He told the AJ: ‘It would not be difficult to refurb what is basically a block of flats – especially when the area is crying out for housing. Luder’s work has been victimised and a target for demolition. His buildings are being eradicated from this country'. Speaking about the scheme in 2014 to Dezeen Magazine, Owen said : "We never set out to design Brutalist buildings. We designed them in concrete because that’s what was there. Bear in mind it was the 60s; it was difficult to get steel, it was still rationed".

Five years later, in 2009, at the age of 81, Owen joined the 'Rubble Club', a 'self help support network for recently bereaved architects' whose buildings have been demolished during their lifetime created by Isi Metzstein. At its first meeting it stated that it would : discuss, debate and remember lost architecture in a comprehensive search for 'Britain’s Best Demolished Building'. It was  aiming to draw attention to the fact that too many good buildings were being torn down and 'provided a platform for many of architecture’s biggest names to come together in a spirit of solidarity'.

Next for demolition was the Trinity Centre Car Park in Gateshead, which had become run-down, the lifts were often out of use, and drug addicts had taken over its stairways. Three attempts were made to list the structure, supported by a few admirers of its dramatic presence in the city, and those who felt it was of cultural significance as a good example of the Brutalist movement in Britain. The critics, however, prevailed and in 2010, it was demolished to make way for a Tesco. For Rodney Gordon who designed it, Trinity Square promised the realisation of his dreams – a metropolis architecture of dramatic skylines, multiple levels and striking forms, on a parsimonious budget and he died as its progenitor in 2008, entirely unrepentant. Owen himself, was philosophical and on a final visit to the building before its demolition said that it was  “an iconic building and should have been listed”, but he accepted the fact that cities needed to change and grow.(link)

Three years later, in 2012, Derwent Tower, his unpopular 29-storey block of flats in Gateshead, known as the Dunston Rocket, also bit the dust. The building's history was one of neglect : the car parks flooded and pigeons infiltrated the 10,000 gallon water tanks which split the 10th and 11th floors. Water pressure was low, lifts frequently broke and damp was a major problem in many of the 196 flats. Nevertheless, Jon Wright of  'Twentieth Century Society' described the decision to demolish it as ‘horribly shortsighted’. He told the AJ: ‘It would not be difficult to refurb what is basically a block of flats – especially when the area is crying out for housing. ‘Luder’s work has been victimised and a target for demolition. His buildings are being eradicated from this country. It’s English Heritage 3. Luder 0.’

Owen himself said : "I don't think the 'Rocket' was a brutalist building, although it had some concrete. I did the Southgate Shopping Centre in Bath and they called that a 'concrete monstrosity' and there wasn't any concrete in it at all, but it became a pejorative word. 'Concrete' went with 'monstrosity' and the with 'Brutalism'. They weren't brutalist in the sense that we didn't put them up there to offend people's eyes. The buildings were concrete because concrete was a natural and available material and in situ can be very, very plastic. In other words, you can make many shapes with it".

The Preston Bus Centre was earmarked for demolition in 2012, to make way for a proposed shopping centre of uncertain viability. Central Government, in the face of prolonged and well-made arguments for its listing, hedged and prevaricated until deciding in 2013 that, "Yes", it was worthy of protection. Its renovation, completed in 2018 was undertaken by Lancashire County Council, which in 2014 relieved its former owner, Preston City Council, of the worry of dealing with its brutalist treasure by buying it off them for £1. The Council then decided to invest £35.3m, with the help of funds that might otherwise have gone into building a new station, into remodeling what they had, rearranging the traffic around it and building a 'youth zone', a sports and leisure centre, alongside.

In 2019 Owen has called for commemorative plaques to be removed from his award-winning Eros House office block in South-East London in protest at the building’s ‘disgraceful’ condition. It had always been a long way from his earlier dream, when : "Growing up as I did in rented rooms in tightly built Victorian terrace houses with no inside loo, I went along with Le Corbusier's vision of beautifully appointed multistorey houses set in big landscaped open spaces". 

Owen said in answer to the question : "How would he like to be remembered ?" : "I was the engineer of change in architectural design where I certainly laid the foundations of the way that architecture has developed from the 1960s onwards". And : "I had a love of my profession and I wanted to make sure it was able to produce its best, which is one of the reasons why I went out all of my professional life and certainly when I was President, to promote architecture and get people to understand architecture and what architecture is about".

In 2017 Owen, the old outsider, added his voice in support and was proud of the part he played in the Campaign to help to secure the historic election of nine BAME members of RIBA Council : 

He told Niamh Dillon in a recording for the British Library in 2015 : "I divide buildings into three categories : "Gee Whizz !", "So what ?" and "Oh my gawd" ". (link)

Owen, ever with his feet on the ground, said of architecture : 

"Yes, its creative, because you're creating something that you hope is beautiful, but it's got to work".

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