Owen Luder (1928 – 2021), British Brutalist architect


Owen Luder (1928 – 2021): an appreciation of one of Britain’s best brutalists

The architect Owen Luder, who recently died at the age of 93, was the leading representative of Brutalist architecture in the UK

In many ways, Owen Luder, who died at the age of 93, represents the public image of the archetypal architect. Bow tie and jovial, he was also seen to have that cliché architectural arrogance, a feature seemingly set in place by the rough, rough edges of his most prominent buildings. Luder was a brutalist. Not just any brutalist, but the leading exponent of raw concrete architecture in the UK, with all the applause and banging that inevitably involved.

Today his two most architecturally significant works have long been demolished and many surviving structures are significantly altered, but among the profession he will be enviously remembered for his ability to (initially) create projects. commercially successful without aesthetic compromise.

Trinity Square, Gateshead, by the Owen Luder Partnership, photo by Sue Barr

As noted, Luder’s two most important buildings are now gone, despite loud calls for their preservation. The Tricorn Center in Portsmouth (completed 1966, demolished 2004) and Trinity Square car park in Gateshead (completed 1967 and demolished 2010) were landmarks of their time. Angular, daring, sculptural and decidedly modern, for many they were the absolute definition of brutalism, for better or for worse. Far from being rigorous or monotonous, each building was playfully eclectic, fusing towers and turrets, rough textures, a rooftop cafe in Newcastle, an indoor market in Portsmouth, and vast concrete spaces resembling cathedrals that have never been ultimately not been overlooked. .

There are allusions to Le Corbusier or Paul Rudolph in play, but each was an individual and autonomous composition. Yet as a reputation like Ernö Goldfinger’s grew and gradually increased the level of respect bestowed on his buildings, Luder’s visions were tied to the success or failure of retail ventures. The cheap concrete probably didn’t help, and it’s tempting to imagine what we would have been like if these buildings had been finished with the precision of a Tadao Ando or David Chipperfield project.

Trinity Square, Gateshead, by the Owen Luder Partnership, photo by Sue Barr

Luder settled as the Owen Luder Partnership in 1957, after training at the Brixton School of Building. One of his most prominent partners was architect Rodney Gordon, who joined the firm in 1959 and was the principal architect of the Tricorn, Trinity and her surviving brother, a piece of London Brutalist architecture, Eros House in Catford.

Gordon and Luder were the terrible children of the architecture of the 1960s, a time when the gap between professional praise and popular opinion was probably much wider than it is today. Despite their best efforts, British audiences couldn’t be persuaded to see or celebrate dark romanticism or abstract intrigue amid the rain-streaked concrete, and the disdain quickly turned into outright opposition. Vandalism, abandonment and ruin were not far behind.

Tricorn Center, Portsmouth, by the Owen Luder Partnership, photo by Sue Barr

Today, with a much broader appreciation of contemporary architecture, as well as a much better understanding of the environmental value of preservation and renovation, it would be almost unreasonable to contemplate the demolition of such important structures.

The Tricorn site has never been redeveloped and remains a dismal parking lot. Even the cultural cachet of a lead role in Michael Caine’s brutal Get Carter The movie couldn’t save Trinity Square, but the parking lots can be reused – look at London’s Peckham Levels or Miami’s multi-story 1111 Lincoln Road.

Tricorn Center, Portsmouth, by the Owen Luder Partnership, photo by Sue Barr

Eros House remains, in the middle of the south London ring road, with a scattering of private houses and a few small residential projects. Yet it is the “failure” of the Tricorn and the Trinity that will be Luder’s legacy. As these images taken towards the end of the life of each building by photographer Sue Barr show, the failure is ultimately not Luder’s failure, it is ours. A lack of collective imagination and a desire to embrace difference and diversity sealed the fate of these pioneering concrete buildings.

Things are different now, with brutalism of all eras emblazoned with social media approval. Owen Luder was a pioneer, and his influence continues to be felt. §

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