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Peter Blundell Jones (1949-2016): ‘a truly important architectural historian’

Architect and writer Peter Blundell Jones, who died on Friday 19 August, illuminated the AR and architectural academe

If the mark of lasting importance is that one can lay claim to a developing a specific area of expertise and knowledge, then Peter Blundell Jones was a truly important architectural historian. It is terrible to say ‘was’ rather than ‘is’ because PBJ (as he was known to all) had such a lively presence in everything he did. The defining aspect of his scholarship and teaching is that he saw architecture essentially as a human discipline. Although he will always be associated with a certain group of architects, it is not an association by style but a common interest in architecture as a profoundly social activity.

Peter would refer to the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung as a particular moment in architectural history, contrasting the small house by Hans Scharoun with the other more famous examples. The dominant history that emerged was one associated with the Modernist greats who also participated in the exhibition – Le Corbusier, Mies, Gropius. The tributary that PBJ followed was initially smaller, and overlooked in the classic histories of Modernism, but because of his work it has become internationally known and significant.

PBJ wrote his first book on Scharoun in 1978, soon after he had left the Architectural Association; it was the first study of this great architect in any language. There followed a prolific set of publications, including the definitive monographs on Peter Hübner, Behnisch Architects, Hans Scharoun (again), Hugo Häring, Gunnar Asplund and the Graz school.

This alone would satisfy most writers as a lifetime’s contribution, but PBJ was not an academic of the ivory tower. For every book there would be 20 book chapters or articles, most notably a brilliant and sustained set of building reviews for The Architectural Review. His range was extraordinary, be it the continued support of the British architect David Lea, the early recognition of Enric Miralles before he became fashionable, or the single-handed introduction of the Graz School and Lucien Kroll to an anglophone audience.

It is wrong to categorise all these architects as ‘organic’, because that suggests at best a stylistic movement or at worst mere curves – and Peter certainly had little truck with the curviest formalist excesses of the parametricists. What does join all his stable of architects is an abiding interest in how people come together through architecture, both in its production (hence PBJ’s interest in participation) and its inhabitation (hence his preoccupation with the anthropological aspects of architecture).

Because he saw architecture as part of wider social and intellectual networks, PBJ was a natural collaborator. He worked with landscape historians on the interface between the built and the unbuilt; with Asian scholars on aspects of ritual; with anthropologists to develop his fascination with Bourdieu’s reading of the Kabyle house. And most of all he worked incredibly generously with his colleagues and students to allow them to develop their own skills and obsessions. Hundreds of us have benefited from his input, which could be anything from a little yelp to a scrupulous, and always sobering, editing of a text.

What struck everyone who met PBJ was how important his work and its findings were to him, and how much he wanted to tell people exactly why it was important. Thus his writing was some of clearest I know, accessible and intellectually acute. But most of all, the message was spread through his teaching – first at Cambridge, then at South Bank University and finally, from 1994 onwards, at the University of Sheffield. Thousands of students will have been influenced by PBJ and each will have an anecdote (‘Do you remember how he spent a whole hour talking about a COWSHED!’), and beneath each anecdote will be enormous affection and respect. He must have given the lecture on Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie tens of times, but each time it was as if it was the first.

When he redesigned the history course at Sheffield into a sequence based around case studies, we intended to divide the lectures up between us. However, by the time PBJ had taken his chunk (‘Jeremy, they HAVE to know about this,’ he would say, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically), there were small pickings for the rest of us. Then there were dissertations to supervise, countless PhD students, seminars around the world, chairing the RIBA Dissertation Prize for years … the list is exhausting just to contemplate, and the tragedy is that one knows he would have kept going before a cruel but mercifully short attack of cancer got him. He would have kept going because he wanted everyone else to care about the architecture that he cared about.

Peter’s exceptional contribution came because he was both a scrupulous historian and a canny designer. He was as pleased that the mill he so beautifully converted in Grindleford was published in The Architects’ Journal as when a new monograph came out, because the former sustained his designerly credentials. He could read a plan at 30 paces and spot bullshit at 60. In crits one would watch with wonder as a hapless student introduced a half-baked technical solution only to have the professor of architectural history systematically unpick the faults in the logic.

It was at Sheffield that he both found and made his intellectual home. He was the historical bedrock for the social and political ethos that the school has developed, but he was also the source of human guidance. He cared passionately about his students and his colleagues, and would rail at any bureaucrats he saw getting in the way.

One hot summer in Sheffield, when the combination of 1960s environmental design and end-of-year stress had left us all overheated wrecks, I was struck by how calm Peter was. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked. He reported that he would go home in the evening, push his coracle out into the millpond and lie on the still water under the canopy of trees. It is this image of Peter, at peace in Grindleford, with his wife Chrissie and children Timothy, Claire and Anna, that will always remain with me.

Jeremy Till is head of Central Saint Martins