The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Derek Walker

by Roland Jeffery

Derek Walker will be remembered as the Chief Architect of Milton Keynes, a post he held from 1970 to 1974, and as Chief Executive of Central Milton Keynes, 1974-76. Milton Keynes was the last and largest of the UK’s New Town programme and the only one to have been an unarguable economic success, on account of its ambitious scale. Walker was appointed at the relatively young age of 41 with several eye-catching competition wins to his name, but otherwise only some small houses and church schemes completed. These include the recently listed Holy Family RC church in Pontefract, Yorkshire.

Rapidly assembling a team of architects, planners and landscape architects at the new MKDC Architects, Walker’s team commissioned a wide array of talent as well as designing some schemes themselves. They worked from their own Prototype System Building, a large, smart commercial shed at Wavendon, with white cladding and bright red detail that featured on celebrated TV ads for the new city for a decade (sadly, it was demolished in 2005). Inside, there was a good deal of bright green carpet. The famous grid road plan of MK was one of the few givens – it came from the Llewelyn-Davis master-plan and was not Walker’s, as is sometimes suggested. But Walker seized the opportunities of the grid, and the flexibility to treat city blocks differently in a city-scale urban laboratory. Some of the experiments worked better than others, but several, especially the smaller-scale contextual housing, are among the best work of the 1970s and 1980s anywhere. Walker also embraced the opportunities offered by the Master Plan for interactions between landscape and buildings, since 40 per cent of the city area was to be – and still is – green infrastructure: landscaped roads, parks, gardens, water and woods. MK is by far the largest designed landscape of post-war Britain. Walker spoke inspirationally of the lavishly-planted grid roads as ‘our Venice canals, our Paris boulevards, our London squares’.

MK is now at an awkward age: no longer new, but not yet venerable enough to escape casual brickbats. Walker claimed that his two proudest achievements at MK were the Shopping Building (1972-79, with Stuart Mosscrop and Christopher Woodward, a long-standing C20 case, now listed), and (possibly mischievously) the Pineham Sewage Works (1970-75). The former is surely the most important single building of early Milton Keynes and is still the most civilised shopping centre in the UK. The sewage works has sleek Miesian boxes in immaculate cladding, some black, some white (or so we understand from photos, as the site is heavily screened by planting and access is forbidden, even to architecture enthusiasts). Walker might have added the Central MK Bus Station (1982, with Felix Samuely), now abandoned by the bus companies, but with its sleek canopy and travertine walls re-purposed as an uncommonly elegant shelter for a skate park. This is a new use that Walker, with his abiding interest in the architecture of leisure, must surely have enjoyed. Fortunately, the bus station was listed last year, following a C20 proposal. The Butte and Knit Distribution Centre (1972, by Walker’s MKDC team) was a landmark in the rise of the highly serviced shed model for new business accommodation, and its huge bright yellow space-frame roof survives, recently restored after a decade of rusty dereliction, and still operated as a logistics hub.

Walker returned to independent practice in 1976, taking some of his MK team with him, as private firms became the politically favoured option for commissioning architectural services. He continued to work in that capacity on MK, but was commissioned jointly with Norman Foster in 1978 to expand the Whitney Museum in New York; their proposal for a tall office tower on top of splayed struts as tall as the adjoining Breuer Museum anticipated Foster’s Hearst tower two decades later. This, like a number of Walker’s later schemes, was unrealised. His scheme for the Royal Armouries in Leeds was completed in 1996, however, as was the huge Happy Valley racetrack complex for the Hong Kong Jockey Club (1991–95).

For many years Walker lived and worked in the Old Rectory, Great Linford, one of the thirteen villages embraced with great tact by the new city of Milton Keynes. With an Elizabethan core, this much extended building was somehow eloquent of the expansive and undogmatic personality of its owner. It was also a stone’s throw from one of the dozen or more new cricket pitches with which MK was provided. As a cricket enthusiast,Walker appreciated this proximity, and the new housing surrounding the green by Richard MacCormac, Tuckley Walker, Stephen Gardiner and David Michaelis make for a quintessentially English scene. It is also a characteristic MK landscape, entirely put together from arable farmland in the 1970s and 80s. The number of notable architects who cut their teeth at MK in housing and commercial schemes during Walker’s time are many. In years when the UK economy was crippled by strikes, the OPEC oil crisis, Edward Heath’s panicky three-day week and IMF financial strictures, Milton Keynes provided a rare island of optimism and fast-moving activity which was really remarkable.

Walker is survived by his third wife Eve Happold and two children from his first marriage to artist Jill Messenger.

Derek John Walker, born 15 June 1929, died 11 May 2015.