Learning from good places, and a dogged determination to do something about it

George Ferguson remembers his time as president of the RIBA when he asked John to set up what became the Academy of Urbanism 

I like to think I made a few good moves as RIBA President in 2003-5 but in retrospect one of the most outstanding ones was, in early 2004, to invite John to help set up an urbanism initiative within the RIBA. He came to my office immediately after I made contact, and his enthusiasm and energy were palpable. I had only known of John by repute up to then, but was to discover that he didn’t do things out of mere duty or a search for glory, but out of a genuine passion for society and good place making. I was also to discover that his idea of ‘helping’ wasn’t to wait for instructions but to take control and throw himself into the appointed task!

In the April 2004 edition of the RIBA Journal I had written: It is my belief that the RIBA should contribute to the greater understanding and practice of urbanism. It is with this in mind that I have asked John Thompson to champion the cause and to chair a refocused planning group to be entitled the Urbanism and Planning Group. Marcus Wilshire, Chair of the cross profession Urban Design Group has also agreed to join the other distinguished members of this team, which includes Robert Adam, founder of the Council for new European Urbanism . While retaining a very real interest across the whole planning spectrum, including the vitally important rural issues, which are by no means disconnected, I intend to bring urbanism to the heart of the Institute.

Under John’s energetic leadership we held a multi-disciplinary session at Portland Place entitled ‘Putting Urbanism at the Heart of the Agenda’ bringing together architects, developers, engineers, environmentalists, landscape architects, leisure consultants, planners, politicians, sociologists, et al.

John addressing the first meeting of the urbanism initiative at 66 Portland Place

It was the first time many had engaged in this extent of ‘cross-dressing’ between the disciplines and that day’s ‘blue sky’ thinking ranged from the amalgamation of Institutes to the instigation of joint courses or foundation years.

Much of this led into our thinking at the RIBA, and undoubtedly helped broaden the minds of the professions, but John felt, quite rightly, that unless we could reach for the sky with an amalgamated ‘Institute of Urbanism’ or take it onto neutral territory, it would always be dominated by architects. After my presidency finished in September 2005, John proposed an independent Academy open to all. He drew in his good friend, developer extraordinaire Trevor Osborne, who invited us both to lunch at his club, resulting in a generous offer to fund the initial costs. The rest is history!

The Academy of Urbanism was formalised in the autumn of 2006 and John gathered together an impressive spectrum of Directors, several of whom have become good friends and from whom I have learnt so much that proved invaluable to me when elected Mayor of Bristol in 2012. None of this could possibly have happened without John who was undoubtedly one of the most driven members of our profession, although deeply sceptical of what he saw as a narrow-minded and rather precious approach to architecture that is too often more about pleasing the magazines than the making of good communities.

John’s fantastic spirit lives on and many thousands of people will be considerably better off as a result of his generosity of spirit, his simple message of learning from good places, and his dogged determination to do something about it. We very much owe it to him to keep banging the drum!