No impediment could be allowed to interfere with the Academy’s ambition

Tony Reddy recalls a conference presentation by John in Kilkenny in 1992 that had a huge impact on Irish Architects and described how they worked together in the early days of the AoU.  

“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.”

In the late 1980s John Thompson came to the attention of myself and a number of colleagues of the RIAI Housing Committee  through his pioneering approach to community participation and placemaking. Leading Hunt Thompson’s regeneration project at Lea View House in Hackney, where he opened an office on site and devised techniques enabling residents to participate in the transformation of their estate, John captured the imagination of architects involved in urban regeneration.

His practice’s work on a number of UK inner city regeneration projects was distinguished by his commitment to the process of Community Planning. This enabled local people to control the future of their neighbourhoods and was achieved  by establishing a shared vision  and empowering residents to take part in the design decisions which achieved the transformation of their communities.

We invited John to speak at the Joint RIAI/DOEHLG Housing Conference in Kilkenny in 1992. His stimulating and motivational lecture was the catalyst for passionate discussion between John and the conference delegates It marked the beginning of  an ongoing involvement of John and his practice in urban design in Irish cities. In subsequent years I was involved in arranging further RIAI events and seminars at which John was a speaker and as a result we became good friends. 

After establishing John Thompson and Partners in 1994 he went on to complete more significant projects. In 1998 his regeneration of the former Caterham Barracks marked the first time that a large-scale collaborative planning process had been promoted in the UK by a private developer. Today, Caterham Village is a thriving mixed-use neighbourhood which is a tribute to the role of John and his practice as architects and masterplanners, 

John’s work  to a wide range of masterplanning and regeneration projects across Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Sweden and China. His work embraced the approach of placemaking, developed through an understanding of the design elements critical to the social success of the built environments; the distinction of public and private space, natural surveillance, distribution of public space and the provision of mixed uses promoting environmental, social and economic sustainability.

John had been appointed Chairman of the RIBA Planning and Urbanism Group by  President George Ferguson in 2004. Arising from John’s chairmanship of this committee, the proposal to found a new independent, multidisciplinary body whose members were committed to nurturing sustainable urbanism evolved.  As a result John became the founder Chairman of the Academy of Urbanism in 2006. Its objective was to be an independent, cross-sector organisation that aims to ‘bring together both the current  and next generation of urban leaders, thinkers and practitioners’.

 I was privileged to work closely with him in these early years of  the Academy as part of the team of founding directors. During this time his leadership skills and his enthusiasm and commitment to creating great places led to the Academy making a significant impact in promoting an awareness of good urbanism and in growing membership of the Academy.

He served as AoU Chairman until 2010 and was then selected to become the Honorary President of the Academy. In this role he continued to encourage the development of the Academy’s activities, motivating Academicians and Members to encourage the wider public to develop an appreciation of our cities, towns and villages. He was actively involved in encouraging many of the Academy’s unique initiatives including the Urbanism Awards, AoU Congress, City X Rays, Learning from Place

As both Chairman and Honorary President John encouraged and nurtured these initiatives. When it appeared that an event or initiative was beyond the Academy’s finances and resources he would regularly find and persuade a suitable candidate from the wide array of his professional and social contacts to become as enthusiastic about a particular initiative as he was and, even more importantly from an AoU perspective, to sponsor a specific event.

The ambition of the Congresses in Copenhagen, Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham, Cork, Aarhus and Eindhoven among others set the standard and aspiration for the quality of these events. When he saw Dublin Castle and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the venues for the 2007 Congress in Dublin, his ambition soared. He saw the potential of the Castle courtyard to record the gathering of all three hundred delegates, from the UK, Ireland and Europe, in a memorable urban setting. At the Congress dinner in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham John, ever the showman,  memorably dressed for the occasion in a red waistcoat and bow tie to give his keynote speech. His legacy is that the Academy now has a membership which consists of the current and next generation of urban leaders, thinkers and practitioners. It now has 600 members, an 18-point manifesto, an annual awards scheme and a scheme for “young urbanists”.He has left a lasting and sustainable legacy.

No practical or financial impediment could be allowed to interfere with the Academy’s ambition. Directors would be encouraged to contact sponsors but when prospects appeared weak, John would invariably overcome all difficulties by finding a sponsor to fund or a council official to assist in organising the event. I can recall on one occasion when he announced to the AoU Board, after a visit to Russia, that he had found an oligarch who wanted to provide significant funds up front to the Academy unrelated to any event, in order that his name could be associated with the Academy. While John’s enthusiasm for what could be done with these funds to further AoU objectives knew no bounds and he could only anticipate the potential of the offer, wiser counsel prevailed and the financial support was not taken up. Two months later Lehman’s collapsed and the oligarch disappeared without trace!!

John was hugely influential urbanist whose lifelong commitment to creating great places has influenced both myself, my colleagues at the Academy and professional collaborators and communities across the globe. We shall not see his equal again.