Our friend and colleague
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 Knight Architects since its beginning, becoming its first employee in March 2007 when he joined from Hopkins Architects. At work, he was a true friend and mentor to his colleagues, valuing the personal relationships built up within a close-knit team and quietly nurturing them. He was selfless and sincere in putting the needs of others first even when, as is sometimes the case in infrastructure projects, the role of the architect was not respected or understood, and he had to fight our corner. This he did with a wry good humour while taking care to ensure we learned from the experiences. Sam helped to define the culture of Knight Architects and, as Director, his leadership was steadfast and highly intelligent, helping to guide the practice on an exciting and uncharted path.
A graduate of the Welsh School of Architecture and then the Bartlett School of Architecture, Sam had a sophisticated clarity in his understanding of architecture, combining an appreciation of formal simplicity with a discerning ability to put his finger on the defining detail, material, or quality. This ability to extract the most important element was also evident in his approach to unearthing talent to join the Knight Architects team. Better than anyone else, Sam was able to identify the sometimes-hidden potential from a CV, interview conversation, or portfolio; he was accurate in his judgement.
Although working in the field of engineering, Sam always reminded us we are architects, and our contribution to a project must necessarily reflect that, sensitively tackling not just visual but human and environmental factors. Many of his favourite projects demonstrate such a harmonious relationship between structure and context, as well as the needs of the user.
A great example is the design of the long-awaited Ely Southern Bypass, needed to remove heavy goods vehicles from the historic city centre but opposed by residents and English Heritage who feared the new structure would obscure or dominate the much-loved views of Ely Cathedral from the River Great Ouse. Not only does his low-lying design 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 pedestrian crossing of the river, creating what is now a popular recreational walk.
Sam was technically highly skilful, bringing parametric computer modelling to Knight Architects and employing it to brilliant effect in the award-winning Lower Hatea Crossing in New Zealand, where his work alongside the structural and mechanical engineers realised a supremely efficient as well as a beautiful solution. Embracing the conflicting challenges brought by a twin client – one part seeking an iconic landmark, expressive of Māori art and culture, and the other insisting on a functional solution with no budget for aesthetics – the design was continually refined under his stewardship, resulting in a unique and dramatic form, no part of which is purely decorative, where the integration of architecture and engineering is seamless.
Sam was undoubtedly a gifted designer, whose passion for design inspired those he met. He calmly avoided the stylistic pitfalls awaiting an architect working in the field of engineering, and instead created elegant, efficient, and enduring designs with apparent ease. There has never been a ‘house style’ at Knight Architects, the studio preferring instead to let individuals express themselves and explore their own ideas and passions, and Sam’s architecture stands out for its maturity, clarity, and rigour.
This is typified in a modest bridge for the Environment Agency and Leeds City Council, which carries 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. The design typifies his belief that design excellence can be brought to every project, and at any stage.
Sam really enjoyed Hugh Pearman’s words in The RIBA Journal, summing up his design for Knostrop Footbridge, commended in the RIBA MacEwen Awards 2019, that the 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 wise words could be equally well applied to the designer.
Beyond work, Sam was a dedicated and loving father. He will be greatly missed.
“He was not only a great designer, collaborative, imaginative and extremely capable, but he was also a gentleman and a real pleasure to work with.”
“With the sudden passing of Sam, our world as designers is diminished in so many ways. Sam’s expertise in architecture and engineering shone through in his projects at Knight Architects. He made creative interaction enjoyable and achieved great things as a result. Sam was a bright light in our industry and we shall all miss him.”