Obituary: Professor Denis Harper
Wednesday 17 February 1993
THE BOUNDARIES between the activities and responsibilities of the various professions which control the construction industry's products are traditionally clearly delimited. Denis Harper was an architect who had the zeal and the commitment to break down these barriers and who did much to progress his vision of an industry in which the roles of architect, town planner, builder, engineer and technologist were more fully integrated.
Born in Harrogate, the son of a chemist, Harper left school at 16 to work with a local architect before going on to the Liverpool School of Architecture which was then run by Charles Reilly. Harper was one of a group of students who graduated in 1930 and who later distinguished themselves nationally and internationally. .
On graduation Harper worked in London for the practice of Pite Son and Fairweather and here he was involved in the design of the last tuberculosis hospital to be built in Britain. As a result of his work on hospital design he was awarded the RIBA Saxon-Snell Prize. After completing a range of interesting design work in the 1930s he returned to academic life in 1939 as lecturer in Architecture at the University of Cape Town, where he spent 10 years. The Cape Town School was then under the direction of Thornton White. In his time in South Africa Harper was concerned with the development of the technical aspects of architectural education but with characteristic energy he completed a doctorate and also studied town planning as well as working in professional practice.
He returned to England in 1950 and subsequently spent five years as the chief architect at Corby New Town. This position, involving detailed collaboration with contractors, developed his growing conviction of the need for a fully integrated building team. Harper carried this philosophy forward in his career at the Manchester University's Institute of Science and Technology when he was appointed the first Professor of Building in Britain in 1957. At Manchester he was responsible for designing a building degree course which recognised the need for a foundation of science and technology, and an understanding of the interrelation between ergonomics and design. He was also concerned with the development of courses which met the growing needs of the construction industry by producing graduates having the necessary understanding of the techniques of management.
As a teacher and head of department, Harper will be remembered not just for his skills as a lecturer and communicator, but also for the imagination and vision that led him to encourage the development of innovative work at the postgraduate level. During his time as professor the department was famous for its work in design technology and design analysis. He also encouraged his engineering colleagues to develop postgraduate activity in the services engineering field.
Harper's influence at Manchester went far beyond his departmental role as professor. He made a major contribution to the planning of the UMIST campus during the 1960s expansion. He served with distinction on a wide range of university committees and was Dean of the Faculty of Technology from 1967 to 1968.
His planning work extended beyond the university and he worked in collaboration with the Civic Trust of the North West for the towns of Crosby, Ashton-under- Lyne, Elland and Dukinfield. As a result of his professional work in this field he was awarded a medal and diploma for good design in housing by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1967.
Harper's work as a builder in the broadest sense of that term was recognised by his being made president of the Institute of Building in 1971-72. This was followed by work as a member of the three-man commission that investigated the disastrous Summerland fire in the Isle of Man in 1973-74. He was appointed CBE in 1975.
On his retirement Denis Harper remained active in promoting his belief in the integrated building team and in the integration of building scholarship. His book Building: the process and the product (1978) embodied much of his philosophy.
As a professor Harper will be remembered by his academic colleagues for his great personal kindness and his staunch and unwavering support. He was always ready to encourage and assist staff and students alike, and many are grateful to have worked under his direction. He was a man of tremendous energy who worked with great diligence. This application coupled with his vision have resulted in a contribution of great value and lasting worth.
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