Tributes pour in for former RMJM president

Tributes have been paid to Andrew Derbyshire, the former chairman and president of RMJM who has died aged 92.

Derbyshire, who was knighted for services to architecture in 1986, was responsible for a string of high-profile buildings including – when he was deputy city architect – Sheffield’s Castle Hill Market and – for RMJM – York University and Hillingdon Civic Centre.

When he retired from RMJM in 1998 the practice was sold to the Morrison family. “Its subsequent decline and fall and eventual insolvency in 2012 were a source of considerable distress to Andrew,” said his son Ben Derbyshire, managing partner of HTA Design.

Towards the end of his life he became caught up in a £1.2 million legal claim from the family of a former RMJM employee who died of a disease caused by exposure to asbestos. After a 15-month ordeal he was absolved of any responsibility.

During his professional life Derbyshire served on the RIBA Council and contributed to the institute’s office survey which led to the RIBA Plan of Work. He was elected senior vice president in 1981 but beaten to the presidency by Owen Luder.

Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates described him as “one of those consummate professionals that defined standards during his era”.

Ricky Burdett said he was a “major force for the good for the profession”.

David Cash, chairman of BDP which was one of RMJM’s great rivals, said: “The way in which that generation of British architects came together through firms like RMJM and BDP to rebuild the country in the latter half of the 20th century is most impressive and provided a great platform for all of us who have come behind them.”

 

Andrew Derbyshire in his own words

On his childhood:

“I was born and bred in Chesterfield, in Derbyshire. It was a wonderful place to be because it was sandwiched between the Peaks and great houses like Chatsworth and the coal fields to the east, and the iron works. And so I was at a meeting point of the humanities and science, if you like, as a child. And it’s never occurred to me before but that may well be the source of this feeling I had – a very strong feeling that art and science had to combine.”

On the profession:

“I don’t think architecture is a viable skill on its own. I never have.”

“A lot of people, particularly overseas clients and multi-nationals, are looking for one man to talk to – one leader. It does not matter whether he is an architect, so long as he is a good leader. He needs the power to get the resources the client wants to see and he needs to command the respect of the team. When it works, it works really well, and we beat the lot.”

“What depresses me infinitely is that we seem to have moved hardly at all towards getting the design skills together, getting the professional institutes together, and getting the designers and constructors together. All this internecine struggle is very destructive. We ought to stop it.”

“This business of turning architecture into theatrical design is very, very dangerous. They’re going to unemployable, poor things – except as set designers.  This isn’t architecture as I know it. Architecture is a synthesis between art and science if it’s anything – and if it isn’t, it doesn’t exist.”

On RMJM:

“I think people…..are attracted to the idea of social architecture which emerges from the place… and the people, the users and the particular characteristics of the design team. That produces a unique product for the location and that is why our buildings are all different.”

“I’ve been lucky, I suppose, in working for clients who believed in collaboration.”

“I have tried to make buildings easy to understand and comfortable, adding to their occupants’ welfare.”

On RIBA:

“One of the things I was hoping to do as president of the RIBA was to try and extend the membership of the institute to people who wanted to join an organisation devoted to building design. No single skill is going to do anything with the industry on its own. We have to do it collectively.”

“We architects have got to reform our concept of professionalism. If we don’t make certain changes… we shall progressively forfeit the limited powers which we’re allowed at present to help shape the physical environment… I’m not saying architects are responsible for the mess we’re in, and even less that we have all the answers and only have to be asked to rescue the world. But I think we’ve got to accept a large measure of responsibility for the environmental crisis, and I believe that, given the freedom to do it, we are uniquely equipped to a play a leading part in the solution.”

- at the RIBA Conference ‘Preparing for the eighties’ 3 July 1969

On York University:

“One of our proposals in the plan was that we should make it a memorable place. We didn’t dare to say it should be beautiful. That would be pretentious. But it should be memorable, and the memorability should relate to a confluence of landscape and buildings and I suppose the backs at Cambridge had been in my mind and certainly in Stirrat’s mind and a precursor. So that this relationship between landscape and buildings was absolutely fundamental to the development of the plan. Yes. And we were lucky in the fact that… the site was in fact a bog. And the ground survey indicated that water levels were very high, even on the hill. And we knew that therefore that there would be an increased run-off due to more hard surfaces, roofs and so on. And that we had to cope with this run-off somehow or other. The traditional remedy is a balancing reservoir, which would be a concrete tank, and cheaper than a lake. We said to the university: we really think it would be essential for our purposes and the university wants to have a lake – can we have a bit more money? It’s not a lot. It’ll be fairly cheap. And I remember somebody at the university UGC. Somebody in the architects saying, “All right. Essex have got their elevated deck. Someone else has got something – you can have your lake.”

“If you ask anybody who was involved in the design and building of the first 10 years at York I guarantee they will tell you it was the happiest 10 years of their professional careers. They were certainly the happiest 10 years of mine. And it was down to Eric really. Down to his leadership that we enjoyed ourselves so much. It was great fun doing it. And we felt that we were doing something worthwhile; that was needed; that would be successful.”

With thanks to Ben Derbyshire