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Bill Jack, 1933-2023, BDP chairman who pushed the practice in new directions

Chris Harding

‘Wise, energetic’ former BDP chairman heavily involved in the expansion and diversification of the practice during a career lasting over 30 years

Bill Jack, who has died aged 89, was a central figure in the history of BDP. Over a long career with the practice he successfully pushed it in new commercial and creative directions, and was elected chair from 1989, serving until his retirement in 1992.

Bill grew up in Inverugie, Aberdeenshire, and studied architecture at Robert Gordon University. It was there that he met BDP founder George Grenfell Baines, chauffeuring him around as an RIBA external examiner in 1957. 

Studying far from the London centre of British architecture, as he later recalled, he became more interested in Scandinavian architecture, ‘which seemed much closer and more appropriate to north-east Scotland’. After graduating he worked at Basil Spence’s Edinburgh office, but a fellowship to do an MA at Cornell gave him a chance to see American practice first-hand, and in firms such as SOM he found an exciting contrast to the UK’s more ‘old-fashioned and gentlemanly approach’.

Returning to the UK in 1962 he was offered a job by Grenfell Baines at the newly formed BDP. Inspired by the Bauhaus, Grenfell Baines was convinced that only a new type of firm could rise to the challenge of infrastructure modernisation, with architects, engineers and quantity surveyors working together under one roof.

Wise, energetic former BDP chairman heavily involved in the expansion and diversification of the practice during a career lasting over 30 years

  • Channel Tunnel UK Terminal.
    Channel Tunnel UK Terminal. Credit: BDP
  • Royal Opera House.
    Royal Opera House. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Painting by Carl Laubin of the Royal Opera House 1986.
    Painting by Carl Laubin of the Royal Opera House 1986.

Bill started his BDP career in Preston but quickly moved to London to work with David Rock, later a president of the RIBA. Bill believed passionately in the collective ideal, but was never afraid to challenge its perceived shortcomings, notably the design freedom resulting from Grenfell Baines’ highly developed sense of democracy. His own early work included Aldershot Military Town, a large residential scheme in Wimbledon, and BDP’s long-term London home on Gresse Street. In 1966 he became a partner.

Alongside Keith Scott he set about growing private sector commissions, with efforts bolstered by a small central intelligence and marketing unit; former RIBAJ editor Hugh Pearman was at one time a member. New work included shopping centres and overseas projects such as the Banco Espirito Santo E Comercial de Lisboa, won in 1969. Completed in 1980, the design is confidently modern yet delicate, well suited to the historic city centre. In the following years, a time of uncertainty in British architecture, he was critical of both the ‘stylistic dead-end of post-modernism’ and historicism advocated by the then Prince of Wales. 

  • Banco Espirito Santo.
    Banco Espirito Santo. Credit: BDP

In the early 1990s, when Bill was instrumental in delivering projects such as the Channel Tunnel Terminal, I was dispatched as a young architect to see him about a job he was chasing, and discovering an enthusiasm for good design which everyone respected. Colleagues recall his ‘swagger’ and energy as well as his wisdom.

A skilled recruiter, his hires included the four future co-founders of AHMM, and he knew that success relies on high-performing teams. He was an open-minded collaborator – the best known being the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Jeremy Dixon and Ed Jones. Bill put together a strong team with the required design and technical experience to win the 1984 competition and deliver the project.

As a general partner, Bill helped set up a studio in Glasgow and established an interior design unit in London. He promoted merging with the civil and structural engineer Lowe and Rodin to enhance BDP’s capabilities, and developed a landscape architecture unit, ably led by his late wife, Janet. Through such initiatives he played a crucial role in shaping the culture and professional mix at BDP, and in paving the way for today’s global firm. He is survived by his daughter, Amy.

Chris Harding is chair of BDP