Professor Peter Blundell Jones 1949 – 2016
When the University of Sheffield School of Architecture celebrated its centenary in 2008 it was inevitable that Professor Peter Blundell Jones was invited to write the authoritative history of those first one hundred years. By then PBJ, as he was generally known, had established a remarkable international reputation as one of the finest and most widely respected architectural historians of his generation.
Some fourteen years earlier he was already well known as a perceptive and rigorous architectural critic and theoretician with countless publications in the most prestigious journals. He had even been named as Architectural Journalist of the Year. His first major book on the great German architect Hans Scharoun was already awaiting publication. It was an easy decision for Sheffield University to offer him a chair. Peter later told me that moving to Sheffield was not such a straightforward decision for him. By then the architectural profession had become absurdly London-centric. Peter worried about leaving the capital but his desire to join a department where his scholarship was valued and encouraged overcame this concern. Throughout the following 22 years he flourished and became a major figure in the more recent history of the Sheffield School. That history shows that Sheffield is the only school of architecture to achieve the highest research rating in three successive exercises and on each occasion we could have submitted internationally acclaimed publications under Peter's name many times over.
During those years Peter wrote important books both on historical figures as well as contemporary architects and practices. After Scharoun there were to be books on Hugo Haring, Eric Mendelsohn, and Gunnar Asplund. On the contemporary scene he covered the Graz architects, Michael Hopkins, Peter Hubner, Gunter Behnisch, Enric Miralles, and Ahrends Karalek and Burton. His more recent books focused on themes and ideas rather than individual architects. Examples are Architecture and Participation (with Doina Petrescu and Jeremy Till), Architecture and Movement (with Mark Meagher), and his final book on Architecture and Ritual. These titles suggest the golden thread running through Peter’s work. He was fascinated by the human experience of architecture and the way societies create and shape their physical worlds. Peter’s own journey through these books shows a progression toward a less orthodox and more overtly anthropological approach. What we also see is just how much of a collaborator Peter was. He published work jointly with many Sheffield University colleagues who had quite disparate research interests, and was generous in giving his time to help colleagues develop their own research and writing.
We shall never again have the pleasure of hearing Peter lecture and develop an argument so rigorously and yet clearly. However taken together his books and articles show a line of thought running through the modern movement less clearly articulated in the public mind. The architects Peter studied were carefully selected in terms of their concern for context, humanism and materiality. That ‘other’ strand to the modern movement is now far more widely recognized and so is Peter as its champion.
There are a number of generic features of Peter's work that taken together characterise his special contribution: his ability to find the general in the particular, his mastery of communication and his seamless integration of research and teaching.
On his arrival in Sheffield I asked Peter to take charge of a major piece of teaching to the fifth year students, those back from a year in practice and beginning their postgraduate degree. He began a project that was to span many years in which students built a model of Sheffield in 1900. This taught them to make use of original sources, to understand and use many different kinds of data and combine them into a single set of conclusions, as well as learning to collaborate in groups. Most importantly this revolutionary project taught students to understand the city and the architecture of the past in terms of the lives of people, their society, economy and technology.
Year by year the physical model grew and was used in many exhibitions and later in a computer version (in collaboration with Chenghzi Peng and myself) making the data available for further research. This was a brilliant innovation in the course with many beneficial outcomes. He also revised the whole history of architecture course moving it away from the traditional parade of styles to a case study approach. Not one but two books were additional outcomes (the second jointly authored with Eamonn Canniffe). This demonstrated one of Peter's most important lessons, the ability to find generic lessons from specific architects, buildings, places or periods. Whenever Peter spoke one was aware that he was drawing you towards some theoretical position that could later be tested or used in future investigations or design propositions.
Another important innovation led by Peter was the weekly forum, open to the whole school but compulsory for postgraduate students. Peter would take a carefully prepared theme each year and invite a series of distinguished and often international speakers as well as requiring presentations from the students. The theme of Architecture and Technology, for example engaged the whole school in debates about the contribution of the many different areas of research in the school. Again books and papers were published.
In spite of this intensely theoretical approach Peter both spoke and wrote in the most engaging manner. Sadly his field is blighted by a tendency among some to obscuration rather than explanation. Peter always chose his printed words with great care and specifically to explain rather than to impress. He was not interested in making his audience admire the depth or sophistication of his work. Rather he wanted them to understand and learn, and mostly they did and will continue doing so for many years to come.
Throughout this time Peter has been an example par excellence of the Sheffield belief in research-led teaching. He supervised a whole string of research students and developed new research directions with them. A prime example of this would be his interest in Chinese culture both past and present as manifested in architecture. The Centre for East-West Studies in Architecture and Landscape that Peter created with Jan Woudstra became the intellectual home for a whole series of research students both past and present. In discussion with Peter it became obvious that one of the attractions of studying Chinese cultures was their more integrated view of past and present than is now normal in the west.
Peter thought no idea too difficult or complex for even the youngest undergraduate and his work wove teaching and research seamlessly together. For many years Peter chaired the Royal Institute of British Architects dissertation prize committee. The written dissertation can sometimes be seen as of secondary importance in a design-based department such as architecture but the work of Peter and this committee has gone a long way to changing that view.
At Sheffield Peter’s teaching contributed to excellent ratings as well as successful visiting boards from the profession. In truth Peter was not a great enthusiast for the modern obsession with evaluations and ratings. He believed that both research and teaching were too rich, complex and important to be reduced to simple numbers on a scale. If you were lucky enough to attend his lectures, sit in with him during research student supervisions or join him in one of the many public critiques of student design work, you quite simply recognised the highest imaginable quality of teaching. You were in no doubt that he had been thinking out arguments in front of students and had invited them to participate in this process. He was the toughest critic imaginable, able almost instantly to get right to the heart of any flaws in a student design proposition. There is no doubt that students feared his critical ability but, I think, never dreaded it. He was not harsh, unkind or unfair but just demanded you lived with his level of argument. This is research-led teaching at it best. His passing will leave a huge hole in the Sheffield student experience.
Peter had his little eccentricities. He was almost proud not to have a mobile phone. I once chided him gently about this at a time when I was probably under some pressure. I remember telling him that a phone might not just be for his convenience but also every one else's. In a series of apparently freakish events he somehow managed to appear on every occasion that I needed to speak with him. I never knew how he performed this weird trick, but learned never to complain again. But Peter was no one-eyed technophobe. In his earlier years he had stripped down and reassembled his beloved Citroen cars, at a time when the French manufacturer was known for advanced design and engineering. He had also made his own audio equipment. More recently, when frustrated by the efforts of publisher’s graphic designers, he just taught himself to use sophisticated desktop publishing software and took on the job himself.
For most of his time in Sheffield Peter and I had adjacent rooms. Over those years I enjoyed countless hours in debate with him. Often he would put his head around the door late in the afternoon and we would begin a lengthy discussion of his latest ideas. He appeared absolutely wrapped up in his work. You might easily mistake this for selfishness, but not so. He was always deeply concerned for his students who were invariably devoted to him. I doubt we ever had a significant conversation without him mentioning his family. He had created a wonderful home for them out of Padley Mill at Grindleford and it remains a testament to his ability as a designer to weave old and new into a single entity. Peter is survived by his wife Christine Poulson and their daughter Anna, as well as children from a previous marriage Timothy and Claire. They must miss him terribly.
Peter Blundell Jones died on 19th August 2016. I find it hard to think of Peter in the past tense. That we shall never again have such debates. That he will never again give me that raised eyebrow-quizzical smile that invited a response to some new line of thought. Without doubt there would have been much more to come if Peter had not been taken from us at the cruelly young age of 67. A book on Lethaby was already more than just a twinkle in his eye. But if there had to be an early full stop, Architecture and Ritual seems appropriate. It illustrates and summarises his views on the relationship between people and their architecture more thoroughly and perceptively than anything else he wrote. His huge and distinguished opus of written work will keep his memory alive for a long time to come.
Emeritus Professor Bryan Lawson