It’s not just about bricks and mortar, it’s about people’s lives

Marcus Adams and Charles Campion mourn the passing of a friend, colleague and mentor and reflect on John’s remarkable 50 year career. 

The passing of our Founder Chairman, John Thompson at the end of December 2022 after a long illness was not unexpected but was nonetheless a shock and one that still resonates.  He was our friend, our colleague and our mentor, with whom we travelled far and wide, worked hard, learned a lot along the way and had such fun. John is sorely missed but his memory and his legacy live on.

Throughout his career John led by example, from pioneering community architect to founder Chair of the Academy of Urbanism, his energy, eloquence and ideas helped forged concepts and movements that attracted others in. Drawing on his natural gift for leadership and gentle persuasion, he inspired all those around him, including colleagues, fellow professionals, developers and politicians to seek consensus and co-create solutions for the betterment of our built and natural environments and our communities. As John wrote as the mission of the Academy of Urbanism, “Great places have the power to fire the imagination of their citizens. No one can create them on their own. If, collectively, we are to create them once again we must first share a common view.”

Maiden Lane Community Planning weekend

A remarkable career

Reflecting on his remarkable 50-year career, John was an inspirational, thoughtful and highly motivated architect and urbanist. Throughout his life he was passionate about improving the quality of life in neighbourhoods and places across the UK and internationally. Trained as an architect at Cambridge University during the 1960s, John rejected the prevailing view of the architect as ‘form-maker’ and instead devoted his career to working with local people to co-create places that encourage social interaction and help nurture a strong sense of community, often in areas experiencing significant social and economic challenges.

From the very beginning of his career in the early 1970s, John pursued a pioneering approach, working tirelessly to develop new ideas and innovative approaches to community participation and placemaking.  Lea View House in Hackney is widely recognised as a seminal Community Architecture project. Shocked by the severity of the problems of the housing estate with high levels of crime, and anti-social behaviour, John opened an office on site and devised techniques enabling residents to participate in the transformation of their estate. At the time Charles Knevitt writing in The Times said, ‘Pride, dignity, and self-respect have been restored at Lea View and Community Architecture was the process by which it came about’.  

John showing Prince, now King Charles around the Lea View Estate in Hackney Photograph Nick Wates

In the 1980s, John led a number of inner-city regeneration projects throughout the UK. In each instance, it was John’s irrepressible belief in the process of Community Planning to enable local people to control their destiny through harnessing community spirit, empowering people to be bold and take the difficult design decisions that enabled the transformation of their own neighbourhoods. As he wrote:  

“The essence of Community Planning is simple – all around us we are surrounded by people who have within themselves, whether they recognise it or not, a great wealth of common intelligence and knowledge. If we can tap that knowledge and intelligence, we can enrich all the processes that we are involved in, we can bring about much better solutions and we can even involve the people in sustaining the solutions in the future.”

Flyer for Caterham Barracks Community Planning Weekend

In 1998, the pioneering, multi-award-winning regeneration of the former Caterham Barracks marked the first time that a large-scale Community Planning process had been promoted in the UK by a private developer. The Vision for Caterham Barracks Community Planning Weekend, attended by more than 1,000 people, transformed local perceptions about the potential of the site. Today, the Village at Caterham, as it is now known, is a thriving mixed-use neighbourhood, located within the former barrack’s walls and connected harmoniously with the adjacent community of Caterham on the Hill. John was the visionary who could see and communicate the opportunities and help local people understand the dynamics of change. He harnessed his expertise and personal commitment to public participation to ensure that the homes and mixed uses were delivered with the active engagement of and management by the local community. 

As a participant at Caterham Barracks Community Planning Weekend said at the time: “It’s not just about bricks and mortar, it’s about people’s lives and building a community that gets on well together!” 

John’s work extended beyond the UK to a wide range of masterplanning and transformation projects across Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Sweden, Ireland and in the later stages of his career on a number of projects across China.

All of John’s work embraced the approach of placemaking developed through an understanding of the design factors critical to the social success of the built environments including, the distinctness of public and private space, natural surveillance, distribution of public realm and the provision of mixed uses promoting environmental, social and economic sustainability. Today such views and approaches are seen as best practice, but it was rare for an architect to design from a standpoint of social interaction and ‘everyday life’ and to see places as more important than individual buildings. It was a for John a great honour, and very moving when, in 2019, his impact was recognised by the award of an American Institute of Architects (AIA) Presidential Citation for Exceptional Service in Participatory Planning and Urbanism presented to him at his home in Hammersmith, West London by the then President William Bates FAIA. This Citation was followed by a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Urban Design Group in the same year. As John wrote at the time: 

“It is a huge honour to have been presented the AIA Presidential Citation by Bill Bates for services to participatory design and urbanism. We have found time and again that you get better solutions and better places if you can empower the community.” 

Academy of Urbanism

In 2006, the growing prevalence of the principles of good placemaking led to John being instrumental in establishing the Academy of Urbanism (AoU) as an autonomous, cross sector organisation set up to identify, learn from and disseminate best practice in placemaking throughout the UK and internationally. John was Founder Chairman of the AoU from 2006 to 2010 and Honorary President from 2010. Today, as a flourishing and influential membership organisation, the Academy has over six hundred members bringing together the current and next generation of urban leaders, thinkers and practitioners.

On AoU assessment visits John would wander off with his camera

John’s incredible career and life is captured in his book, ‘Creating Great Places’ which can be viewed here: https://issuu.com/jtp_placemaking/docs/creatinggreatplaces

“As my teacher and mentor for over twenty years, I can say that John was a one off. His infectious enthusiasm and unrelenting commitment to creating great places has influenced me hugely and touched the many communities and professional collaborators he worked with across the world. John will be greatly missed, though his remarkable legacy lives on and continues to be fostered in our practice’s work at JTP.” Marcus Adams, Managing Partner at JTP

John Thompson’s Career

1971: MA DipArch – Cambridge University School of Architecture

1969-1994: Founding Partner – Hunt Thompson Associates (now HTA)

1986: Founder Trustee – The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture

1992-1999: Founder Member – Urban Village Forums

1994-2017: Founder Chairman – John Thompson & Partners / JTP LLP

2001-2011: Panel Member – Yorkshire Forward’s Urban Renaissance and Market Towns Panel

2004-2009: Chairman/Vice Chairman – RIBA Planning and Urbanism Group

2006-2010: Founder Chairman – The Academy of Urbanism

2010-2022: Honorary President – The Academy of Urbanism

2019: Presidential Citation – The American Institute of Architects

2019: Lifetime Achievement Award – Urban Design Group