Owen Luder obituary | Architecture

In one of the most striking scenes from the film Get Carter (1971), Michael Caine’s character, Jack Carter, throws the businessman Cliff Brumby off the top of a huge multistorey car park in Gateshead.

The film’s director, Mike Hodges, was a friend of the design architect Rodney Gordon, and the scene was shot before the building opened in 1969. However, the 12-storey megastructure of shops, pubs and a market, variously called the Treaty Centre or Trinity Square, and dominated by its landmark car park, owed its genesis to Gordon’s boss, the architect and consultant Owen Luder, who has died aged 93.

Luder worked for some 20 years with the London developer Alec Colman, who had invited him to collaborate in a competition to rebuild Gateshead town centre back in 1960 – well before T Dan Smith set about the modernisation of Newcastle, across the Tyne.

Luder visited the site, never having previously ventured north of Watford, and, with 10 days to produce a design, sketched the basic scheme on the train home. It made the most of a steeply sloping site so that shops on two levels could both be entered at street level, with escalators linking them to a market square in the middle. He and Colman then had to persuade Gateshead council that a multistorey car park was a practical and visual symbol of progress at a time when few existed in Britain.

Owen Luder standing by the iconic Gateshead car park. It was demolished in 2011. Photograph: PA/Alamy

Sadly the building was not maintained, the nightclub that featured in Get Carter never opened and in 2011 the complex was demolished. Luder declared that he did not believe in preservation per se, but in 2009 spoke perceptively of the environmental costs of demolition and his belief that a building should only be replaced by something as good or better.

The loss of the Treaty Centre followed the controversial demolition of Portsmouth’s even larger Tricorn Centre, shops, parking, a nightclub and wholesale market, commissioned after Gateshead but completed first.

When Luder first saw the Tricorn Centre site, named for its shape, in 1960 it was an open, “rather dreary” surface car park. He saw the potential of such a very deep site for a market and car park, and with Gordon created an anthropomorphic beast in rugged concrete, its staircases over-scaled and car ramps a series of spirals, supporting heavy slabs that withstood the wholesalers’ lorries on upper levels.

He explained that he used in situ concrete because steel was unobtainable, and cement could be used more expressively. But unlike at Gateshead, the shops were a failure since there was no anchor store and the pedestrian route led nowhere.

The Tricorn Centre enjoyed a belated lease of life with pop-up shops and a flea market. Yet the Prince of Wales condemned it as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings” and the local radio station led a campaign for its demolition. In 2004 it was returned to an open, “rather dreary” surface car park. Once it was gone, locals lamented the loss of this cheap, flexible space and its music venue, their nostalgia launching a revival of interest in brutalism nationwide that has spawned dozens of blogs, books and artworks.

The Tricorn shopping centre in Portsmouth. Photograph: Martin Bond/Alamy

In 2014 Jonathan Meades declared the Tricorn and Treaty centres “great monuments of an age”, the equal of Stonehenge or Lincoln Cathedral for their time. Luder reconciled their loss by proudly claiming membership of the Rubble Club, an unofficial group launched by Isi Metzstein for those architects who outlive their buildings.

Luder’s one significant housing block, at Dunston, again in Tyneside, has also been demolished. It was known as the “rocket” because of its dynamic shape, a product of circular caissons adopted successfully to withstand mining subsidence. His first major block of shops and offices, Eros House, opened in Catford, London, in 1963, does survive but has been ruthlessly reclad, in a conversion to flats. Less adventurous office buildings, some in brick and many on the sites of old cinemas, survive much better.

Luder was born in Paddington, London, the only child of Ellen Mason, an unmarried seamstress. He spent his early years in Islington, which may have prompted his lifelong passion for Arsenal. In 1931 Ellen married Edward Luder, a south Londoner, and when Owen was aged six the family moved to the Old Kent Road to a home with the family’s first indoor lavatory. He was not evacuated during the second world war, but was sent to the Peckham school for girls, which had become coeducational for the duration of the second world war.

He wanted to design aeroplanes, but the government was already encouraging young men into reconstruction, and in January 1945, aged 16, he entered the Brixton School of Building, which gave a valuable grounding in the practicalities of laying bricks and detailing joints. Subsequently he combined his national service with evening classes in architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster), inspired by the work of Le Corbusier. He took on small private jobs, detailing a shirt factory in north London when only 16, and qualified as an architect in 1951.

Luder’s first independent works were a block of flats, Hendon Court, and a series of hair salons, then becoming more open-plan and fashionable thanks to the development of new setting products. He worked for Vidal Sassoon in Bond Street before turning to larger commercial premises and another new building type, the supermarket.

He opened his own office in Pimlico in 1957, and his breakthrough came with a Tesco supermarket there that in 1960 was the largest in the country at 4,000 square feet. It also introduced him to Colman, his greatest associate.

That year they collaborated on an unplaced entry to a competition for a shopping centre and offices at Elephant and Castle, leading Luder to bring in Gordon and Dennis Drawbridge as junior partners. Success followed with Eros House, which won an RIBA medal for the best building in London of 1963. The partnership expanded rapidly, with Luder opening offices in Harrogate and Newcastle. Shopping centres in Coalville, Leicestershire and Harrogate won awards.

Luder’s skills lay in seeing a site’s potential and in securing the commission, but he was keen that office buildings should not be bland and found around 1960 that contractors were under-pricing in situ shuttered concrete, and that this could produce a fluid, sculptural architecture that was interesting to walk through. His most memorable work was produced in collaboration with Gordon, the partnership lasting until 1967.

In the 1970s Luder found work in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Nigeria, and in designing high-security prisons. A witty raconteur and skilful negotiator, he was the only man to be twice president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, in 1981-83 and 1995-97, in his latter term helping to set up the Stirling prize for the best British building of the year.

Luder married Doris Bradstock in 1951, and they had five children: a son, Peter, who died in infancy, and four daughters, Jacqui, Kate, Sara and Judith. They divorced in 1988 and Doris died in 2010. In 1989 Luder married Jacqueline Ollerton, who died in 2008. He is survived by his daughters.

Harold Owen Luder, architect, born 7 August 1928; died 9 October 2021

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