The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Derek Sugden

by Elain Harwood

Derek Sugden was a structural engineer, but in his finest achievement – the concert hall at Snape Maltings – he triumphed also as an acoustician. He was a co-founder of both Arup Associates and Arup Acoustics, yet many members may know him best from the house he commissioned at Watford from Alison and Peter Smithson, which the Society visited in 2001.

Sugden was born and raised in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, though his parents were originally from Yorkshire. His father was an engineering draughtsman and a staunch Methodist, and as his mother was a fine singer the Methodist church choir played a large part in his early life. Then, in 1940 (while still at school) he attended a jazz concert at Watford Town Hall and was struck by its perfect acoustics. Through the church and a shared passion for music he met Jean Metcalfe, who he married in 1949. Music was a life-long obsession, but later Sugden declared himself ‘a born-again atheist’.

From Hitchin and Harrow & Weald grammar schools, Sugden went into engineering, apprenticed to a firm called Foster’s in West Ham while studying at Westminster Technical College to become a chartered structural engineer. Later he worked for another London engineering firm, C F White. But by the early 1950s he was becoming bored and, conscious of his lack of a university education, he confessed to his friend Ronald Hobbs that he was considering a degree in English. Instead, Hobbs secured him an interview with Ove Arup that was to change his life.

‘What shall I ask you?’ inquired Arup. ‘Are you intelligent?’ Sugden wisely refused to answer that second question, and Arup decided that he had ‘a nice face’ and would ‘fit in’. Although Sugden could talk teasingly of Arup, their shared interests in music and philosophy, incisive thinking and disdain for bureaucracy gave them much in common. Sugden’s thorough experience of steelwork broadened the practice’s expertise, and he came to specialise in factories. As well as working as construction engineers, the firm was designing increasing numbers of its own buildings, and in 1963 it formed an independent multi-disciplinary practice, Arup Associates, with Sugden as one of the four founding partners. The New Museums site at Cambridge and work for IBM at Havant and Portsmouth were among his most important works.

Ove Arup was in Sydney working on the opera house when in October 1965 he received a commission to remodel the derelict maltings at Snape. He sent Sugden to meet Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Britten’s distrust of acousticians was second only to his distrust of music critics, and he insisted that Sugden handle the work himself. By removing the internal walls and raising the external walls and the roof, he created the large volume rectangular box he had admired at Watford, and achieved an equally full sound. Stiff boarding, notably for the stage, ensured that there was little sound absorbence. When the Maltings burned down two years later, Britten had it rebuilt in 42 weeks without any alterations. Snape marked the start of a second career for Sugden, as it introduced him to the acoustician Richard Cowell, who in 1980 suggested that they form Arup Acoustics. Sugden advised on the Buxton and Glyndebourne opera houses, the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and small recital halls such as the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building in Oxford. He was awarded the Institute of Acoustics Engineering Medal in 2012, and also served as chairman of Arup Associates between 1983 and 1987. He finally retired in 1998.

Sugden loved sleep, relaxation, good conversation and good wine, and it was through membership of the Wine Society that he met his second wife, Katherine Douglas. He also loved the house designed for him and Jean by Alison and Peter Smithson, who he met through his Arup colleague Ronald Jenkins. Sugden described it as ‘a simple house, an ordinary house, but… this should not exclude it from being a radical house’. The same might be said of the man himself.

Derek Sugden, born 27 December 1924, died 30 December 2015.