Knight Architects director Martin Knight pays tribute to a leading bridge designer and key member of the practice, who has died suddenly aged 42
One of the UK’s leading architectural bridge designers, Sam White, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on 31 January 2021. Sam was a key member of bridge specialist Knight Architects since its beginning, becoming its first employee in March 2007 when he joined from Hopkins Architects. He helped to define the culture of the practice and, as a director, his leadership was steadfast and highly intelligent, guiding the office into new fields.
Though he was born in Bolton, Sam grew up in Somerset and remained very fond of country life, walking on the Levels and fly-fishing. That love of water drew him towards naval architecture before he opted for the design of the built environment, studying as an undergraduate at the Welsh School of Architecture followed by his diploma at the Bartlett.
Sam had a sophisticated clarity in his architectural thinking, combining an appreciation of formal simplicity with an ability to put his finger on the defining detail, material, or quality. This was also evident in his approach to unearthing talent to join the team. Better than anyone else, he could identify the sometimes-hidden potential from a CV, interview, or portfolio.
Although working in the field of engineering, Sam always reminded us we are architects and our contribution to a project must reflect that. Many of his favourite projects demonstrate a harmonious relationship between structure, context, and the needs of the user.
A great example is the Ely Southern Bypass, completed in 2019. A new bridge was needed to divert goods vehicles from the historic city centre but had been opposed for many years by residents and English Heritage amid fears the structure would dominate views of Ely Cathedral from the River Great Ouse. Sam’s design and project leadership helped to allay concerns. Not only does his low-lying bridge stand in visual harmony with the fens landscape – its rusty hues and distinctive concrete supports emerging organically from the river and its flood plain – but his addition of a dedicated footpath on the inside curve of the highway, at a lower level and screened from the traffic, offers a new public vantage point and what is now a popular recreational walk.
Sam was technically highly skilful, employing parametric computer modelling to brilliant effect in the Lower Hatea Crossing in New Zealand. Embracing the conflicting challenges brought by a twin client – one part seeking an iconic landmark expressive of Māori culture; the other insisting on a purely functional solution – the design was continually refined under his stewardship. The result was a unique and dramatic form, no part of which is purely decorative, where the integration of architecture and engineering is seamless.
Sam calmly avoided the stylistic pitfalls awaiting an architect working in the field of engineering, and instead created elegant and efficient designs with apparent ease. His rigour is typified in a modest bridge carrying the Pennine Way across the Knostrop Weir flood defences. Working for the design & build contractor and in collaboration with the structural engineer, he developed a ‘value-engineered' alternative design which offers delicacy and delight as it steps lightly across the water; slender and curvaceous but also rational and economical.
That project was commended in the RIBA MacEwen Awards 2019, and Sam greatly appreciated Hugh Pearman’s words in the RIBA Journal, noting that his design 'does not shout its architectural or engineering message, rather working through understatement ... it displays a clear intelligence and commitment to the old idea that public works are a matter of civic pride'. Those words could be equally well applied to the designer.
Beyond work, Sam was a dedicated and loving father. He will be greatly missed.
Martin Knight, director, Knight Architects.