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Derek Stow 1929 – 2014

RIBA fellow, OBE, dedicated to providing facilities to help enable the NHS promise of cradle to grave healthcare

Derek Stow, one of the foremost architects in healthcare buildings, has died at the age of 84. Although his name may be unfamiliar to the general public, his peers, clients, students, and work colleagues held him in very great esteem. His buildings, including Thamesmead Lakeside Health Centre, received many awards for design quality and performance in use. 

His less tangible legacy was in seeking to ensure that the NHS provided healthcare facilities to all, as originally intended, ‘from cradle to grave’. He wrote ‘Changing Hospital Architecture’ (with Sunand Prasad, RIBA Publishing, 2008), describing the process by which the coherent design of healthcare buildings – location, content and built form – has changed since 1948, but is continually interrupted and amended by successive governments, with much lost at each change, particularly the in-depth evidence based research which he identified as crucial.

Derek studied at Kingston School of Art, Department of Architecture, now Kingston University. In his first job, with Brown & Chamberlin, he was assistant architect on the seaside section of the Festival of Britain – the riverside frontage to the Royal Festival Hall. After National Service, he joined Powell & Moya; he was assistant architect on schemes including Churchill Gardens housing, then as associate took charge of several healthcare projects including Wexham Park District Hospital, Slough.

In 1962 he formed his own practice, Derek Stow & Partners, in his home in Camberwell Grove – his wife Gwyneth juggled the needs of Derek and his small team with visiting clients and two young daughters; and she and Derek created the start of a very special office atmosphere. Lunchtime trips to the pub sometimes included his father, Ivor, who was very influential in Derek’s life. Gwyneth became the landscaping partner in the practice.

When the office size, and the imminent arrival of his third daughter, dictated a move to premises in Old Queen Street, Westminster, that atmosphere made the transition too. The work was demanding, innovative and exciting and all staff, however junior, felt they were working with Derek – a subtle but significant detail. If a subject interested him, he appeared to have all the time in the world to give it his full consideration. 

He had a close involvement, from its outset, with the Medical Architecture Research Unit, founded by Raymond Moss. At the same time his practice portfolio of healthcare projects encompassed strategic planning, development control and master planning, support facilities, specialist units, day hospitals, primary and community care, education and residential, and modular health buildings. The latter project started with a prototype relocatable health centre at Poplar, and evolved into a patented totally relocatable building system. Derek appreciated the great importance of education, whether in his own office, tutoring at the AA, or at MARU.

Derek started the Halpin Stow Partnership in 1991 with old friends returning the office to a more intimate, less corporate atmosphere. It was a productive time, working on master plans for Royal Sussex Country and Whipps Cross Hospital. It culminated in the building of King’s College Hospital new critical care centre and operating theatres together with the joint education centre.

Derek became an associate of the RIBA in 1951, and was elected a fellow in 1965. He won the OBE in 1979 for services to architecture, was elected a Freeman of the City of London in 1984 and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects in 1989. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for services to the healthcare environment in 2008.

He was a man of interesting opposites: quiet and modest, but able to forcefully convince a roomful of sceptics if he felt strongly. While being a true modernist, Derek was fascinated by Lutyens. He embraced computer aided design, while his real weapon of choice remained the technical drawing pen. He was a serious, thoughtful, patient man; enthralled by all aspects of the built environment and full of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm. To say we will miss him is an understatement. 

He leaves his wife, Gwyneth, daughters Anna, Katy and Harriet, and grandchildren.

John Fielder and Pam Whitmore Fielder