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Obuituary: Tom Ridley, engineer who helped build Ninewells Hospital and the Royal Commonwealth Pool

Born: 15 August 1927, in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.Died: 11 February, 2012, in Peebles, aged 84.

TOM Ridley was a structural engineer who, though born south of the Border in Gateshead, spent most of his career in Scotland as a leading figure in engineering, design, planning, project management and related consultancy.

In 1954, having married a Scottish lass, Carol Leighton from Broughty Ferry, he opened the Scottish office – or “practice” as they call it – of the now globally famous Arup firm, initially on Edinburgh’s George Street, in 1959-60. He went on to preside over the company’s new branches in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, promoting Arup’s motto: “We shape a better world.”

With people like Ridley helping drive its structural engineering side, Arup, founded in London in 1946 by the Newcastle-born Danish engineer (later Sir) Ove Arup, would eventually branch out to have practices in nearly 40 countries with an impressive list of projects in connjuction with avant-garde architects. Among these were the unmistakeable Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the “Bird’s Nest” – the Beijing National Stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games – the “Water Cube” or aquatic centre for the same games, and several projects in London including The Eye, the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge and Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Ridley himself was a driving force behind the completion of the state-of-the-art Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, which, with its medical school and links with the University of Dundee, became one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe.

It was opened by the Queen Mother on 23 October, 1974. Although Ridley had by then retired, Arup would go on to help build Maggie’s (cancer caring) Centre, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, at Ninewells.

Ridley was personally involved in many other Arup projects in Scotland, including the Royal Commonwealth Pool – known locally as “the Commie” – in Edinburgh. Built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, it was used again in the 1986 Games and will re-open to the public next month after a major refurbishment to make it one of the finest aquatic facilities in the UK

Among other projects on which he consulted on behalf of Arup were many hospital and university buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh, including the University Library on George Square, Edinburgh, Glasgow’s Western General, Royal Infirmary and Gartnavel hospitals, the St Enoch’s Centre in the same city, the library at Dundee University and the Scottish Widows headquarters in Edinburgh. In the early 1970s, Ridley also helped Arup develop viable deep-water platforms for North Sea oil.

“Tom was highly motivated, energetic and focussed. He always ‘led from the front’ and was not easily distracted from his objectives,” an old friend and fellow consulting engineer, Sandy Fraser, told The Scotsman.

“He was the first chairman of the Joint Building Group in Scotland in the 1960s and that allowed him to expand upon and disseminate his interest in inter-professional collaboration. He had great strengths and vision, which promoted him to the top echelons of professional status in Scotland, including membership of the Royal Society (of Engineers).”

Ridley was also, among other things, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and a Fellow of both the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Structural Engineers. He had retired by the time Arup became involved in perhaps one of its most controversial structural projects in Scotland – the Scottish Parliament, designed by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles.

Tom Ridley was born in the Deckham suburb of Gateshead, on 15 August, 1927, but spent some of his childhood years in Africa, where his father was helping the locals to build railways. Back home, Tom went to Gateshead Grammar School and Teesside College in Middlesbrough before graduating with a first class honours degree in civil engineering from King’s College London.

He joined Arup in London straight out of university in 1954 and was assigned to its new office in Lagos, Nigeria, the following year. He would remain with Arup throughout his career, eventually becoming a senior partner and running its Scottish offices.

He and his wife Carol spent the second half of the 1950s in Lagos, where Arup ran civil engineering projects including construction of the Iddo Overbridge. That led Ridley to co-write an important research paper, an investigation into the manufacture of high-strength concrete in a tropical climate, which concluded that a certain proportion of calcium chloride was required in the concrete mix.

After retiring in 1991, the couple settled in West Linton, in the Borders south of Edinburgh, where they designed their own home. Already in his sixties, he went back to university on a part-time basis to successfully study for a degree in architecture in order to teach young professionals how to combine architecture and engineering, one of his passions.

Into his eighties, he remained an active member of West Linton Golf Club, enjoying the views of Mendick Hill from Slipperfield Moor, and enjoyed fly fishing with Carol on the Tweed, the Spey or the lochans around Lochinver. He was also a formidable squash player and an accomplished classical guitarist.

A staunch conservationist – the company founder Ove Arup always insisted that building should attempt to enhance rather than spoil the environment – Ridley fought to preserve the natural environment around his retirement home.

As part of the Quarries Action Group in West Linton, he successfully fought off several proposals for quarries.

Tom Ridley died in Hay Lodge Hospital, Peebles. He is survived by his wife Carol, daughters Jane, Jacquie and Sally, granddaughters Jenna and Kate and grandson Jamie.

PHIL DAVISON

 

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