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Former RMJM president Andrew Derbyshire dies

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Andrew Derbyshire, the former Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM) chief and one of only a handful of architects to by knighted, has died aged 92

A major figure within the RIBA for many years - he was elected senior vice President in 1981 - Derbyshire worked at RMJM for nearly four decades.

While at the practice he famously worked on the campus for the University of York (1961–1989), a period he described as the ’happiest ten years’ of his life. 

Derbyshire, the father of HTA managing partner Ben Derbyshire, was born in Sheffield in 1923 and originally studied natural sciences at Queen’s Cambridge, graduating during the Second World War. 

After serving with the Admiralty Scientific Service as an experimental officer (1944-46), he retrained as an architect and completed his studies at the Architectural Association in 1951.

He then spent two years at Farmer & Dark with John Voelcker and Frank Dark working on a prefabricated design for Marchwood power station in aluminium, glass and steel. He was sacked for advising the client that positioning the substation downwind of the smoke stack would cause deterioration of the insulation.

From there Derbyshire returned north to work at the West Riding County Architects Department under Hubert Bennett, the county architect, where he designed a kit-of-parts construction system for schools in wood and steel.

He later became deputy city architect to J Lewis Womersley in Sheffield (1955-61) where he designed the city’s now-demolished Castle Hill Market.

From 1961 he worked at RMJM in London, where he undertook the York University Development Plan. He was taken into partnership in 1964, became chairman in 1983 and president in 1989. He retired in 1998 and RMJM was sold to the Morrison family.

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Central Hall, University of York (RMJM) - 1967

According to his son, the practice’s ’subsequent decline and fall and eventual insolvency in 2012 were a source of considerable distress’ to him.

Derbyshire was knighted in 1986 and during his retirement ’earned pocket money as a specialist consultant advising on immunity for listing of post war buildings’. 

In his later years Derbyshire was dragged into a £1.2million court case over alleged asbestos poisoning along with former RMJM Scotland partner Vernon Lee. Both were absolved in May 2014 (AJ 09.05.14).

His involvement with the RIBA began when he was elected to council in 1960. Two years later Derbyshire contributed to the RIBA Office Survey, The Architect and his Office, from which the RIBA’s long-standing Plan of Work was derived. In 1981 he missed out on becoming RIBA president, losing following a membership-wide election to Owen Luder.

He is survived by his widow ’Lady Lily’, three children, five grandchildren, two great grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

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.’

’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.’

’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.’


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