Max Fordham’s death was announced by his eponymous practice Max Fordham LLP in a statement on 5 January. The practice said: “Max’s creativity and passion will be sorely missed. The legacy of his vision will continue to inspire.”
Fordham founded his London-based studio – then Max Fordham & Partners – with his wife Thalia ‘Taddy’ Fordham in 1966 “on the idea of engineers bringing scientific knowledge into the art of building design”.
“Max pursued a new approach to engineering based on his insatiable curiosity about how buildings work,” said the studio. “He resisted pigeonholing into the conventional boxes of mechanical or electrical engineering, and was always interested in the whole building. He took a creative, but essentially practical, approach to building services design. Designing from first principles, he was often quoted as saying ‘start with the edge of the universe as a boundary and quickly narrow down to the specific problem’.”
Among the projects to which he lent his expertise are the innovative Alexandra Road Estate (1978) in north London by Neave Brown, Tate St Ives (1993) by Eldred Evans and David Shalev and Judge Institute Cambridge (1995) by John Outram. In more recent years the practice worked on Fordham’s RIBA Sustainable Prize-winning Camden home, as well as the Tate Modern Switch House and Passivhaus Agar Grove Estate in London and the MAXXI in Rome.
Fordham retired from practice in 2000, handing its running over to his partners. The following year the studio became Max Fordham LLP – the first UK construction company to become a Limited Liability Partnership. Today, the 250-strong practice is co-owned by its 119 partners.
“From the start, Max sought a collaborative partnership approach to running a business to encourage shared responsibility and a feeling of ownership. He felt that designing a system for people to work in productively and creatively was as important as the design of the buildings themselves. Max himself said ‘it’s a responsibility-sharing scheme, not a profit-sharing scheme’,” said the studio.
Tributes have flooded in from the profession. Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios said: “Max was one of the most influential people in my own architectural education and in the work of our practice. Indeed his influence was unsurpassed for a whole generation of engineers, but perhaps dare I say more importantly – of architects.”
“He taught us ‘sustainability’ at Cambridge long before the word became common currency and introduced building physics to the architectural curriculum. A big conceptual and philosophical thinker – combined with pragmatism unconstrained by convention – a belief that a good idea could always be practically resolved and realised.”
“When we started to work with Max Fordham back in the late 80s it was a real pleasure to find a practice where there was a real sense of design collaboration. I like to think that whole sequence of FCBS projects; the BRE building, Bedales Theatre, Heelis, The Headquarters for the National Trust and the Woodland Trust and Worcester Hive were the result of a meeting of practice minds within a new discipline of architectural services engineering, where conceptual ideas were genuinely shared. Max’s own personal input to the concept design for Heelis, for instance was just as significant as ours- if not more so,” said Clegg of Fordham’s impact on architecture.
Below a Tweet from the practice announcing Fordham’s passing Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins described Fordham was “irreplaceable”, commenting: “Such sad news. Max was an inspiration and mentor to so many of us – a genuine original thinker, a pioneering designer, a wonderful teacher and brilliant company. Irreplaceable.”
Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire responded: “So sad. What a wonderful man. A great raconteur amongst many other talents. Told me once that the Griffon engine in his wartime Supermarine Seafire had almost enough power to hold the plane vertically in the sky!”
“Very sad news. A true pioneer, a one-off, an inspiration, a collaborator, and a inspiration,” tweeted Bartlett Professor of Architecture and Design Bob Sheil.
Alex Ely of Mae, the architect behind the Agar Grove Estate Passivhaus scheme the practice has been working on Tweeted: “Very saddened to hear this. Max was a leading light of environmentally responsible buildings. ‘Max-isms’ continues to inspire. It was an honour to work with him, he leaves an incredible legacy in the form of a great team.”
Among commenters were former students, including the CEO of sustainable practice Agile Design Craig White who wrote: “A huge loss! Max was my tutor at the AA. He nurtured in me the need to minimise energy use in buildings. His enthusiasm, creativity, sense of humour & profound understanding of systems thinking was inspiring! I’m privileged to have known him & benefitted from his unique approach.”
ZCD Architects co-founder Dinah Bornat described Fordham as ahead of his time, tweeting: “Thank you Max, for explaining a heat exchanger to me, for the first time, and telling me how it was going to catch on in housing. So ahead of your time and part of such a brilliant sister practice to Cullinan Studio across the yard in Camden. An incredible legacy.”
Max Fordham’s death follows just weeks after the passing of Richard Rogers and Chris Wilkinson, who died in late December 2021.
Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects remarked “so many giants of the construction industry are falling. Max was undoubtedly a giant of engineering, a pioneer of sustainable design, an original thinker and a pleasure to work with with.”