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Sir Ove Arup: engineer and philosopher

You could be forgiven for never having spotted the black commemorative plaque high on the wall between the upstairs and downstairs bay windows of 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace, Heaton. The house is in the row of almost white brick terraced houses on the east side of Heaton Road, opposite the park. They have front gardens and, in the case of number 16, a high hedge so you really have to be looking for the plaque.

If you can catch sight of it from the road, you’ll see that it intriguingly reads ‘Ove Arup; 1895-1988; Engineer and Philosopher; Born here on 16 April.’

Commemorative plaque at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace

Arup is rarely mentioned among Newcastle’s great engineers. Even those who have heard of him usually assume he is Danish. (More of that later.) But almost everyone will be familiar with at least one example of his work.

Sir Ove Arup (for, although not mentioned on the plaque, he was awarded a knighthood in 1970) was one of the great structural engineers of the 20th century and he was instrumental in the construction of one of the world’s most recognisable buildings: the Sydney Opera House. But we can also see and admire examples of his work much closer to home. First, back to his local roots.


Ove’s father, Jens, was Danish and a qualified veterinary surgeon who, in 1889, came to Newcastle to work for the Danish consulate, supervising the health of imported beef cattle. He found a house for the family in Jesmond but, sadly, the following year, before she could come to the UK to live with her husband and three daughters, Jen’s first wife, Johanne, died.

Following her death, Jens appointed a governess, Mathilde Nyquist, to educate his daughters and three years later he married her. Soon, with a child on the way, a larger house was required and so the Arups moved to Heaton, to the substantial 3-storey terraced house at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace. And here on 16 April 1895, Ove Nyquist Arup was born.

Members of the Arup family pictured at his birthplace in 1967
JesmondValeTerrace47 RLC
Jesmond Vale Terrace, Heaton

Very soon after, however, with the British government increasingly concerned about the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth, an Act of Parliament was passed which banned the import of live cattle from areas in which listed diseases were found. Jen’s job became redundant and so, with Ove just a few months old, the family relocated to Germany. Ove was educated there and then in Denmark, where he went on to university to study philosophy and engineering, specialising in reinforced concrete.

So Ove’s initial stay in the country of his birth was brief. But he was to return. And the north east was to become especially important to him.

Back to Britain

On completion of his studies Ove took a job with a Danish company, Christiani and Nielsen. But in December 1923, when he was 28 years old,  the company transferred him to their UK office as Chief Designer. He went on to join J L Kier and Co (reinforced concrete specialists) and to meet and work with the famous architect, Berthold Lubetkin, most famously on the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. In 1938, Ove and his cousin, Arne, set up their own company Arup & Arup Ltd.

It was shortly after this, in the early years of WW2, that Ove faced an example of the sort of resistance that was to plague him for much of his life. And it was a formidable north east woman who stood in his way: Ove had designed a bomb shelter in ‘new-fangled concrete’, which he firmly believed would protect London citizens during enemy air raids. Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, was the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Home Security and entered into correspondence and talks with Arup about his proposals. While his designs would certainly save lives, Ellen Wilkinson and the government were concerned that the public would lose confidence in the existing brick and trench shelters and that those not able to shelter in the new concrete, underground shelters would be disadvantaged. In the end politics won the day, much to Arup’s disappointment, although his shelters were commissioned privately  by a number of wealthy clients.

After the war, Ove opened his own practice in London, Ove Arup, Consulting Engineers, which in 1949 became Ove Arup and Partners.


In 1957, Ove began work on the project which would make his reputation. But little did he know then, how much heartache it would bring nor that it would be seventeen years before it was complete.

Throughout his working life Arup made a point of congratulating architects, who won prestigious prizes for their designs, in the hope that his company would win the contract to help realise their dreams. This is exactly what happened when the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, won a competition to design an opera house in Sydney. The design was controversial and the engineering challenges immense. Ove had difficulty persuading Utzon to modify his original shell design to make it buildable and to take account of the acoustic requirements of a world class opera house.  Costs spiralled and there were constant personality clashes between client (Australian government), architect (Utzon) and chief engineer (Arup). Utzon eventually resigned in 1966 and the Australian government architect, Ted Farmer, appointed a team to oversee the completion of the building.

Sydney Opera House under construction - 5 shells erected
Sydney Opera House under construction (made possible by Heaton-born Ove Arup)

Nevertheless this protracted project and its eventual success cemented (sorry!) the reputations of Ove and his companies. In October 1973, Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. Ove and his wife, Li, were at the ceremony. Utzon, the architect, was not invited and was not mentioned at all during the proceedings.

Bridge Over the River Wear

In 1961, Ove was approached to construct a concrete, pedestrian bridge across the River Wear from Dunelm House to Bow Lane, linking the university with the historic centre of Durham. There was a seemingly paltry budget of £35,000.

It was assumed that the financial constraints would mean the bridge would have to be a low one requiring most pedestrians to climb and descend steep banks on either side. But Ove was always ready for a challenge and decided to design and oversee the construction of a high re-enforced concrete bridge himself. To minimize costs, he ingeniously designed it to be constructed on conical pivots, in two halves parallel to the river. When finished in 1964, the two halves were swung manually, through 90 degrees to meet and be connected centrally by a bronze expansion joint.  Kingsgate Bridge is now a Grade 1 listed building.

Ove Arup inspecting Kingsgate Bridge
Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, a favourite project of Ove Arup

Of all the projects that Ove worked on this was to give him the greatest satisfaction, so much so that it was his wish that his ashes be scattered from Kingsgate Bridge into the River Wear. And so he was both born in the north east and returned to the region in death.


The adjacent Students Union building, Dunelm House, was also an Arup building. Ove acted as structural engineer and architectural adviser and his bust is mounted on the wall, which faces this bridge. It is built in the so-called ‘Brutalist’ style and excites conflicting emotions: In 1968 it won a Civic Trust Award but has also been called ‘the ugliest building in Durham’ by the university’s students. Although, in 1995, English Heritage said it had once been described as ‘the greatest contribution modern architecture has made to the enjoyment of an English medieval city’. In 2017, Durham University declared that no longer fit for purpose and announced plans for demolition so that it could redevelop the site but there is a well-supported campaign to save and list the building.  A decision is yet to be made.

Bust of Sir Ove Arup on Dunelm House


Sir Ove’s Park?

In 1967 Ove Arup drew up radical proposals in which Newcastle United Football Club would share sporting facilities with the nearby Newcastle University. The ground capacity of the £32.6m complex would have been around 63,000 with 31,000 seated and 32,000 standing.

Arup proposal to redevelop St James Park

Included in the plans were two gyms, four multi-purpose halls, five-a-side football and rugby fives courts, 13 squash courts, swimming, diving and learner pools plus a supporters’ club and restaurant. The plan for a state of the art stadium to replace the old ground fell through when the club was reluctant to share the facilities with the university.

Byker Viaduct

A local Arup structure which was built, albeit one constructed after Sir Ove’s retirement, and one which is still very much standing, is the elegant Byker Metro bridge.

Arup-designed Byker Metro Bridge

Again, the design was challenging because it had to be squeezed in between an existing road bridge and a main line rail viaduct; it crossed a steep-sided valley with old mine workings beneath; the valley is crossed by a geographical fault as well as the Ouseburn. The solution, a tall 800m S-shaped viaduct, won the Concrete Society Award for Civil Engineering in 1980 and makes a striking addition to the bridges which cross the valley. It is an appropriate local memorial for the Heaton-born company founder.


Ove Arup, besides being a talented structural engineer had many interests. He was an art collector, pianist and the accordianist as well as writer and artist: After his death, his daughter Anja published a book, ‘Doodles and Doggerel,’ of his drawings and verse. He was also a keen and successful chess player, going so far as to set up a company to manufacture chess sets, made to his own innovative designs.

He was often considered eccentric and many stories still circulate among those who knew him. He is, for example, said to have almost always carried a pair of chopsticks in his jacket breast pocket, so that he could sample other peoples’ food while dining with them.


But what of the ‘philosopher’ as mentioned on the plaque on the house of his birth? As already mentioned, Ove studied philosophy, along with engineering, at university and it remained an important influence on his work throughout his life.

His ‘Total Design’ vision was intended to encourage creative collaboration across all disciplines: not only engineering, building and architecture but other less obvious ones too, including computing, ethics and philosophy. He was a creative and critical thinker, who loved to debate and apply both original thought and what he learnt from other disciplines to his work and to the way his firm was run. Ultimately he wanted to make the world a better place.


Ove was much-honoured during his lifetime. including:

CBE (1953); RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture (1966) – unusual for a Structural Engineer to receive;Knighthood (1970); The Gold medal of the Institution of Structural Engineers (1973); Queens Award for Export Achievement (1984); Elected Honorary Royal Academician (1986).


When Sir Ove Arup died on 5 February 1988, he was the figurehead of one of the largest structural engineering companies in the world. Today his company employs over 14,000 staff in 92 offices across 42 countries and is responsible for many prestigious engineering projects worldwide. The firm is owned by trusts, the beneficiaries of which are past and present employees, each of which receive a share of the firm’s operating profit each year. There is still an Arup office in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Ove Arup Foundation, a charitable educational trust, was set up in his memory for the advancement of education directed towards the promotion, furtherance and dissemination of knowledge of matters associated with the built environment’.

Can you help?

If you know more about Ove Arup and his work, especially his connections with the north east, we’d love to hear from you.  Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email


Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group, with additional research by Chris Jackson.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Key Sources

‘Ove Arup Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century’; Peter Jones, 2006

‘The Arup Journal 50th Anniversary Issue’ 





  1. We had one of his air-raid shelters built in our back garden – as I have mentioned before – but I remain mystified as to where they managed to source the materials: back-scratching springs to mind.
    It was unusual in that my grandfather supplemented Arup’s design by having it buried underground, with all the excavated earth piled on top of the 12″ thick reinforced concrete roof. Unfortunately, the additional security came at the cost of a permanently wet floor, as there was no way of preventing the rain getting down the concrete stairs, past the blast wall, and into the 8′ by 6′ by 8′ concrete box. And obviously we were well below draining level. But we had electricity for light, as well as heating, plus bunk beds and a small easy chair.
    It was built by the men who demolished Heaton Hall at the end of our street and built Heaton Hall Estate.
    However, even Arup’s beloved reinforced concrete could not prevent the west side of Tintern Crescent sliding down into Heaton Park.
    The roof of the shelter was broken up in 1947, the box filled with the debris, and a garden shed built by my grandfather using the tops of the walls as a foundation. My father built a new shed in the ’80s (40 years for a garden shed is pretty impressive – what?) and it, along with the remains of the shelter, are all still there.

  2. As he is from Heaton I sent the article to my son who works for Arup in Perth Australia. He enjoyed reading it as I did. Heather Wear

  3. Colin Jackson, who worked at Arup’s in London while Ove was still alive, emailed:

    I joined Ove Arup and Partners (as it was known then – it’s now rebranded as
    Arup) in August 1979. Ove was 84 by then and was not directly involved in
    running the firm. That was carried out by the younger partners that had been
    with him from the early days of the firm in 1940s – Peter Dunican was
    chairman and future chairmen Jack Zunz (who led the Sydney Opera House
    project from the late 1950s until completion in the early 1970s) and Povl
    Ahm were probably the main players. Ove had an office in the main building
    at 13 Fitzroy St. and was involved in his own projects – such as designing
    chess sets.

    I wasn’t interviewed by Ove. I started work in 8 Fitzroy St. – directly
    opposite the main building. As a new graduate and part of an intake of about
    40 I attended the “Grad school” – this involved some technical talks, site
    visits and talks from the senior directors etc. who stood at a lectern and
    showed slides of completed projects, always including the Sydney Opera House
    which had opened 6 years earlier, and had clearly been the dominant project
    for its 10-year+ duration. The programme included a talk from Ove for a
    couple of hours one afternoon. When he arrived he didn’t stand at the
    lectern, but sat in a chair facing us. We were sitting in rows and I seem to
    remember he asked us to come closer and arrange ourselves into a semi
    circle – a bit like a primary school teacher about to read to the class. He
    talked at length about the Durham footbridge which he had been “allowed” to
    do himself. He obviously felt he had not been able to get involved in many
    aspects of design on the larger projects (even though this was the early
    1960s – and I would have thought he was involved in the Sydney Opera House
    concourse design around this time). He spoke with a surprisingly strong
    accent for somebody who had lived and worked in Britain since the early
    1920s. He was evidently immensely proud of his contribution to the project –
    the way the bridge was built in two halves on each bank and rotated to join
    at the middle. The central joint involved a T and a U on their sides with
    the stalk of the T riding inside the U on rollers to allow thermal
    expansion. It could have been either way round, but he pointed out that the
    T was on the town side and the U on the university side (I haven’t
    checked!). I can hardly remember anything the other speakers said with their
    endless Sydney slides, but the memory of Ove sitting there and talking about
    his pet bridge project is still clear after 38 years.

    I never had a one-to-one conversation with Ove, he didn’t know who I was
    (there were about 2000 in the London offices when I joined), but he was
    always around for the first 5 years or so. As I worked on the Ground floor
    of 8 Fitzroy which had the director’s dining room on the 6th floor and Ove’s
    office was on the other side of the road, I’d often see him crossing the
    road or waiting for the lift. I remember entering the building one December
    afternoon and Ove was stood on the top step looking as though he’d forgotten
    where he was heading. He was wearing a paper hat from a christmas cracker.

    There were lots of lunchtime and evening talks which were well attended by
    the new graduates, partly because food and drink were provided and we didn’t
    get paid very much. Sandwiches and a can of beer or soft drink were provided
    for lunchtime meetings and the speakers were usually Arup people talking
    about a technical subject or a project. I don’t remember seeing Ove at any
    of these (he was presumably in the director’s dining room if he was around).
    The evening talks were by invited external speakers on a range of topics,
    with french bread and brie, and as much wine as you could drink after the
    talk. I remember Ralph Erskine talking about the Byker Wall, Raymond Baxter
    on Tomorrow’s World and Formula 1, Ivor Mills on being a TV newscaster, and
    Edward de Bono on lateral thinking. I can remember Ove being at a few of
    these. I particularly remember him asking a question at the end of the
    Edward de Bono talk and then having a long good-natured disagreement, before
    Edward de Bono suggested they continue the discussion over dinner later and
    letting a few others ask questions.

    I can’t really say what made Ove exceptional, but I think that the
    organisation he created seemed very different to the competition and other
    organisations of a similar size, from what I have observed and heard from
    others. There seemed to be space for all sorts of odd characters who were
    brilliant at something. The organisation was fairly informal, but seemed to
    work. Everybody was on first name terms (which wasn’t always the rule then –
    I’d had a few summer jobs, but none where I called my boss by his first
    name, so it seemed strange at first). I sometimes had to do some research in
    the library. A little very old man sat in an office within the library. He
    would occasionally wander out wearing a pair of slippers and offer anyone
    who wanted one a Danish biscuit from a large tin. I heard people say “Thanks
    Henry” and discovered he was called Henry Crowe, an old friend of Ove’s. I
    didn’t know until I read the biography that he was at school with Ove from
    1907 and was in at the beginning of the firm in 1946.

    When I was in hospital for an eye op in 1982 a friend from work brought me a
    copy of the in-house magazine with a get well message from Ove written on
    the cover (I still have it). It was easy for a young grad to get to him for
    that kind of thing and he was happy to do it. Years later a French engineer
    working with me at Arup in London bought a book about Norman Foster’s work
    before going back to France. I was working on a project with Foster’s at the
    time and asked the architect I knew if he could get Norman to sign it. He
    said no – Norman doesn’t do that kind of thing.


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