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Obituary: Derek Walker (1929-2015)

The ‘visionary architect’ and mastermind behind Milton Keynes, Derek Walker, has died aged 85

Appointed as the new town’s chief architect and planner in 1970, Walker pulled together a team of 200 to deliver 3,000 new homes a year in the Buckinghamshire countryside.

Alongside Stuart Mosscrop and Christopher Woodward, Walker designed the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre, which was one of the first covered shopping centres in the UK and won a number of awards after it opened in 1979.

The building, described in a Pevsner guide as ‘still the best-looking if no longer the biggest shopping centre’, was grade II-listed in 2010.

Born in Leeds in 1929, Walker went on to study architecture at Leeds School of Architecture before setting up his own practice. The practice was disbanded while he worked on Milton Keynes but later revived.

His practice worked on a number of overseas projects including teaming up with Norman Foster on plans to extend New York’s Whitney museum. The controversial scheme, which relied on purchasing air rights from surrounding properties to build a skyscraper, was never built.

During the 1980s he went on to head up the architecture department at the Royal College of Art. He also taught at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee.

Sam Jacob, whose installation at last year’s Venice Biennale, included Walker’s work at Milton Keynes, said: ‘Derek was a real visionary. His work at Milton Keynes was an amazing combination of technology, consumerism and the Welfare State. It also combined a love of Los Angeles with longstanding traditions of British landscape to create a really unique place.

‘It was a real honour to spend time with him while researching A Clockwork Jerusalem, discussing the culture of the MK design project and team (“very kinky” apparently). Derek seemed to occupy a unique space between the avant garde of the late 60s with can-do practicality. 

‘Author of the most high concept planning rule - that no building would be higher than the tallest tree, his ideas about how architecture and planning can both connect to and create new kinds of place are still incredibly powerful. It’s very sad, but also a great tribute to Derek that his work is central to the exhibition at the British Pavilion last year, and now displayed at the AA.’

Geoff Shearcroft, director of AOC, added: ‘Derek was a passionate man, a great enthuser. I first met him in 2007 as part of Milton Keynes 40th anniversary celebrations. We met to discuss all things MK and toured around his greatest hits. As he drove he told anecdotes, intertwined with insight and critique, creating a compelling story of the UK’s most successful new town. I was hooked. 

Shearcroft added: ‘He was one of the few architects I have met who combined a commitment to design with a genuine interest in people; how things work as well as how they look. His Milton Keynes experience seems to have converted him from a singular architect into an eclectic imagineer. He was interested in the popular everyday and sought to engage with all aspects of it, from new towns to theme parks, museums to race-courses. I find his body of work intriguing because it defies accepted conventions of architectural practice and taste. Working at the scale of the city he elevated experience over detail, designing for an evolving future rather than a static present.’

Further tributes

Pete Marland, council leader, Milton Keynes
‘We were sad to learn of the death of Derek Walker who played such a large part in creating the look and feel of Milton Keynes, including the iconic Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre and much of our distinctive green space.

‘During his lifetime he saw his visionary ideas translated into today’s growing and thriving city and perhaps his greatest tribute will be that Milton Keynes today is very much a place that is loved and enjoyed by its residents.

‘People like Derek Walker don’t come along very often. He was a very talented man whose vision, energy and innovation has left a positive legacy for Milton Keynes. We owe him a great and lasting debt.’

 

Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Roche

    Derek was an inspiration to a great many Architects and an even greater number of students. His work on Milton Keynes was both exemplary and visionary.
    Chris Roche
    Founder 11.04 Architects

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