Working on a design with Max was like playing an impromptu duet with a brilliantly inventive and empathetically responsive virtuoso. He was always fully present and engaged, bubbling with infectious laughter; he was relaxed in exploring ideas, which could stray, often productively, outside the parameters of the task. Yet the solutions reached together, though they might be extremely inventive, were always practical and often simple.
Born in June 1933, Max was the only child of the esteemed psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, Michael Fordham and journalist Molly Swabey. During World War II his mother took him for safety to stay with an uncle in the Caribbean. Tragically, after settling Max in, she set off for home, but the boat she took across the Atlantic was torpedoed and she was killed. After the war, Max returned to the UK and attended the progressive Darlington Hall School, which was a pupil-run democracy. Lessons were voluntary but the first hour of every morning was compulsory ‘useful work’ where students helped maintain the school building. Max learnt joinery and metalwork, among other things, and usually chose to work beyond the allocated hour in the joinery workshop.
Max Fordham at his Camden Mews home
After two years’ National Service in the RAF, Max went to Trinity College Cambridge in 1954 and completed an MA in Natural Sciences. He was disappointed with the academic experience and was certain he didn’t want to follow that path after university. His friend, Leslie Martin, who became a renowned architect, suggested heating engineering as a career. It was a completely new field in which he could be creative and use his practical skills, as well as his knowledge of physics and chemistry. While a student, he also underwent detailed psychoanalysis, prompted by his father. Max said that all these early experiences shaped the rest of his life.
Max initially went to work at Weatherfoil Heating Systems, where his projects included inventing an innovative fan convection heating system for Harvey Court, Cambridge, on which Leslie Martin also worked. At a time when the concept of M&E consultancy simply didn’t exist, Max realised that the engineering of buildings was intensely interesting and could encompass drainage, ventilation, lighting and electrical engineering as well as heating. He joined the Building Group, an integrated multi-disciplinary group of architects and engineers that morphed into Arup Associates, before establishing his own practice with his wife Thalia, known as Taddy, in 1966.
Max took an unconventional approach to both running a company and the practice of engineering. In recruiting staff, he looked for interesting people and encouraged employing those who didn’t have conventional engineering backgrounds. He established the office as a democracy, in which everyone, including the cleaners, was a partner who owned a share of the company. There was flexible working for those who wanted it and all partners voted to elect a changing management board which ran the company. In engineering, his approach was sustainable and holistic with an interest in the whole building. He delighted in exploring ideas with architects and had huge influence.
Key projects included Alexandra Road by Neave Brown, and Tate St Ives by David Shalev and Eldred Evans, as well as the Judge Institute by John Outram. We worked with him on Hull Truck Theatre, one of the most sustainable performance spaces in the UK as well as Library Court for Corpus Christi College Cambridge, among other projects. Though his work was recognised through innumerable awards and honours, Max remained exceptionally modest. When the Queen asked what he did when giving him his OBE he replied ‘Ma’am, I’m a plumber!’
Max sat on many committees and steered architecture into being more interesting and sustainable but also loved engaging with young people, teaching the world over. He was probably never happier than when engaged in projects within his office, which continued almost to the end of his life, culminating in an exceptionally sustainable downsized home he built at the bottom of his garden.
However, the fading of the light was not without a sense of wistfulness. Just a few years ago, walking home from the RIBA Awards ceremony with Max pushing his bike, he told me that for the first time he hadn’t been voted onto the Max Fordham management board. Discombobulated, he said with feeling, perhaps he should have written into the original constitution that he should have a fixed tenure. When I asked if he meant that he gave a great laugh and said ‘no, of course not – it’s the right decision… now it’s the turn of other people’.
Max was a genius but his greatest qualities were his self-awareness and generosity of spirit. He cared for Taddy, during several years of her illness not long before his own. He adored his family and leaves three sons and several grandchildren. We will all miss him terribly but his influence will live on in a more sustainable built environment.