Obituary: George Duncan

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The Independent Online
George Duncan was from the second tranche of post-war planners produced by British universities and polytechnics. The first flight may have been the deus ex machina of the developing countries they were to serve but later graduates thought more in terms of development rather than master planning and were consequently better integrated with local people in the planning process. Of these, none had a higher success rate or greater achievement than Duncan.

In 1968 the Government of Saudi Arabia, on advice from the United Nations, initiated regional planning as a positive element of government economic policy. The firm of Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall and Partners (RMJM), for whom Duncan was working, bid for the preparation of a regional plan for the Eastern Region, and were unsuccessful, but the Saudi government were sufficiently impressed with the quality of the submission to invite RMJM to prepare a plan for the Western Region, together with master plans and detailed studies for the principal cities. George Duncan was appointed to co- ordinate the project.

It was a formidable task. There were no maps or reliable information on which to base a plan. There was also the language problem and the need to secure the confidence and co-operation of people on the ground. Above all it was important to understand and respect Islam and the cultural environment it expressed. To begin to address at least some of these problems it was decided to establish at Jeddah an inter-disciplinary team of architects, engineers, geographers, statisticians and so on.

It was important that the team should include Muslims and that every opportunity be taken to recruit locally-qualified Saudi engineers to work side by side with the expatriates. One of the new graduate appointees was Mohamed Said Farsi, a born leader who later became Mayor of Jeddah and was able to provide the drive and initiative without which the master plan could not have been accomplished.

At Jeddah, Duncan and Farsi were as brothers. Both were aesthetes and respected the best of the past as a pointer to the future. Without Farsi's intervention the remaining magnificent old buildings within the historic core would have been lost to developers. In spite of criticism he introduced sculpture and monuments on to the city streets and promoted the development of a magnificent open air museum of modern art. Together with Duncan he developed other bold and imaginative schemes including the recreational corniche forming the Red Sea frontage of the linear city that Duncan and his team had designed. It was very much the meeting of these two minds that established Jeddah as what Farsi described as "the bride of the Red Sea".

By his own admission Duncan never achieved more than "some Arabic". Whenever he was stuck for words he would take a pencil out of his pocket and draw. Similarly, he never found time to learn to type or become computer literate. Everything was committed to paper in long hand supported by three-dimensional sketches. Calculations were made in his head.

Duncan was the son of a journeyman. At great sacrifice his parents had sent him to the Ayr Academy and then to the Glasgow School of Art and Strathclyde University. Duncan remembered with pride his spartan childhood and the craftsmanship of his father. He saw himself as a master craftsman planner rather than an artist or technician because to him people were always more important than things.

His professional life began in 1955 when he joined a private practice employed in the design of various projects for the Glasgow Corporation. After National Service and a commission in the Royal Engineers, Duncan returned to the legendary town planning division of the London County Council, where he worked with the mercurial teacher and practitioner Percy Johnson Marshall on the preparation of low-cost layouts and development control procedures for Comprehensive Development Areas in east London.

In 1958 he moved to Kent County Council where under James Adams he concentrated on urban design studies and statutory planning policy. By 1959 he was able to apply for membership of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Town Planning Institute. The next year, following his election as an associate member of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, he joined his old colleague Marshall in Edinburgh and worked with him on the Islamabad sector of the new capital of Pakistan; the Belfast Regional Survey and Plan; the Burgh of Kirkcaldy Central Area Redevelopment Scheme; and on comprehensive planning proposals for Salford and Nova Scotia.

In 1966 Duncan moved to RMJM in Welwyn Garden City working with Sir Stirrat Johnson Marshall, brother of Percy, on the study and master plan for the proposed new town of half a million people based on three existing towns in central Lancashire (CLNT, the Central Lancashire New Town - the last designated New Town in the UK). Otherwise, his early work with RMJM was in connection with the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok.

In 1985, after 15 years residence in Jeddah, Duncan retired from the RMJM partnership and was appointed MBE. This gave him the opportunity to write a doctoral thesis at Durham University entitled "The Planning and Development of the City of Jeddah 1970-1984". Thereafter he served as an external examiner for Durham University, wrote, broadcast and taught, and until shortly before his death travelled backwards and forwards to the Middle East assisting with cartographical publications and consulting on a wide range of urban design problems at Mecca, Riyadh and other Saudi cities. In retirement he returned to his interests of calligraphy, philately and music.

George Duncan, architect and town planner: born Ayr 22 August 1931; MBE 1985; married 1959 Helena Nugent (two sons); died Tours, France 19 February 1997.