Eminent Engineers: Derek Sugden 1924 - 2015

Alongside Sir Ove Arup, Philip Dowson and Bob Hobbs, Derek Sugden (1924-2015), established Arup Associates in 1963. Sugden went on to set up Arup Acoustics in 1980.

The Guardian obituary written by the late Diana Rowntree (the newspaper’s very first architecture critic) highlights Sugden’s insight that architecture is about ears as much as it is about eyes, quoting Sugden, “I was intrigued that … [architects] were very concerned with every aspect of the building but not really what it sounded like….The sound is as important to me as the surface. Our ears define, for me, the nature of space.”

There can’t be too many engineers who have been noted in The London Review of Books, but Gillian Darley recounts the story of Sugden’s childhood epiphany around the relationship of sound, space and materials. “That realisation first came to him as a boy, out on a family walk. As they entered a long brick tunnel, the children asked their father to whistle (he was an expert performer). Sugden noticed the way the sound was transformed once they were fully encased by the curving walls.”

Our ears define, for me, the nature of space

Sugden went onto work on the Buxton and Glyndebourne opera houses and the Snape Maltings opera house where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears advised Sugden in creating the much-acclaimed building. As Mark Swenarton recounts the history in Building Design, “Britten said he wanted the sound to be ‘full’ and so, to give the required two second reverberation time, Sugden said the roof had to be raised by three feet. The resultant concert hall was immediately hailed as one of the best in the country in terms of acoustics and was used by Decca for recordings by Britten, Pears and others. But in 1969, only two years after it had opened, the hall was destroyed by fire just as the Aldeburgh Festival was about to start. On Britten’s instructions it was re-built exactly as before and was ready for the opening of the festival the following year.”

The overriding impression of the obituaries is of a man with a passion for life, his house in Watford which he lived until he died - he had it commissioned from the Smithsons and in 2012 it was Grade II listed.

This film, taken from The Building Centre archive, shows Derek Sugden in conversations with Chris Wise and Mark Whitby about his career in engineering.

This video was produced in 1997 as part of The Building Centre’s Eminent Engineers series.

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