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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.’

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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.

Geordie

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.

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Members of the Arup family pictured at his birthplace in 1967

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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.

Iconic

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.

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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.

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Ove Arup inspecting Kingsgate Bridge

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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.

Brutalist

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Polymath

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.

Philosopher

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.

Honours

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).

Legacy

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   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

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’

http://www.engineering-timelines.com/who/arup_O/arupOve12.asp

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/12/durham-university-dunelm-house-threat-of-demolition-brutalism

https://www.themag.co.uk/2014/08/newcastle-uniteds-st-james-park-looked/

https://mymagicalattic.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/ove-arup-philosophy-of-total-design-at.html 

 

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