Modest, erudite and charming but with inner steel: a RIBA president, government advisor, yachtsman and consummate architect
Bryan Jefferson, who was president of the RIBA from 1979-81, was an architect of a kind that is virtually unknown now. A fine private practitioner from his Sheffield base Jefferson Sheard, he later became a considerable public servant. Jefferson was the government’s chief architect at the now-defunct Property Services Agency (PSA) from 1988 to 1993, and then architectural advisor to the then Department of National Heritage from 1993 until he retired in 2001. The tall, softly-spoken Jefferson had the ear of government in a way that – with the notable exception of Richard Rogers through the Urban Taskforce in the Blair years – no architect has since had.
His advice was solidly founded on experience gained in the crucible of practice at a time when architecture sought to evaluate its impact on society and to contribute to, if not lead, its progress to a better future. Bryan Jefferson’s more recent career in public office perhaps obscures to some degree the successes of those earlier days in practice. The purely architectural skills employed in the design of his keynote buildings are overdue a proper appreciation and assessment.
Jefferson’s immaculately detailed Brutalist behemoth of an electricity substation is one of Sheffield’s best-known landmarks, floodlit by the Council in 2010 and greatly loved or reviled despite a large part of the citizenry having no idea what goes on within
Jefferson was born in Sheffield in 1928 and, following the death of his father in the first blitz on the city, was sent to be educated at Lady Manners School, Bakewell before studying architecture at the University of Sheffield.
Upon graduation he joined the new practice set up in Derby by the distinguished Irish architect Major Sam Morrison before being sent back home to open the firm’s Sheffield office. The Sheffield venture metamorphosed via Morrison Partners and Jefferson into Jefferson and Partners and, by 1957, with the arrival of Jefferson’s friend and fellow alumnus Gerald (Gerry) Sheard, into Jefferson Sheard and Partners.
Early commissions included a series of private houses in the Huddersfield area – something of a hotspot for progressive residential design at that time with Peter Womersley’s Farnley Hey having been recently completed – but Jefferson’s bigger opportunities arose back in Sheffield where post-war reconstruction and a radical remodelling of the city was gathering momentum.
Perhaps the most enduring – and, certainly, the most talked-about – of Jefferson’s major buildings was one of the first, the immaculately detailed Brutalist behemoth of an electricity substation commissioned by the Central Electricity Generating Board in the early 60s. Commended in the 1968 Financial Times Architectural Awards and statutorily listed grade II in 2013, this is one of Sheffield’s best-known landmarks, floodlit by the Council in 2010 and greatly loved or reviled despite a large part of the citizenry having no idea what goes on within. The switching-on of the floodlighting was the occasion of Jefferson’s last official visit to his home city and an abiding memory is of him signing copies of the artist Jonathan Wilkinson’s specially commissioned painting of the building whilst surrounded by a new generation of admirers eager to meet its creator.
No less starkly dramatic, but less visible, was another grittily utilitarian public work, the City Council’s Olive Grove depot, displaying a similarly skilful touch in its detailing, following which the practice embarked on a series of less muscular but still elegantly nonsense-free developments such as a cinema and entertainment complex on Pond Street (known to subsequent generations of Sheffielders as the ‘Fiesta’, ‘Roxy’ or ‘O2’) and offices for the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (now the AEU), Eagle Star and the Probation Service.
A smaller project was the headquarters of the Derbyshire and Lancashire Gliding Club at Great Hucklow in the Peak District. Jefferson developed a life-long love of gliding at 16 and competed sufficiently successfully to make the English Gliding Team.
Jefferson’s many successes as President included navigating, as skilfully as if he were at the tiller of his yacht Calliope, around the tricky matter of Anthony Blunt’s honorary Fellowship of the RIBA at the time of the latter’s unmasking as a Soviet spy
Jefferson was also a man of too much energy and vision to be contained within one city and his influence within the profession grew such that he was elected to serve as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects between 1979 and 1981. A natural diplomat, Jefferson’s many successes as President included navigating, as skilfully as if he were at the tiller of his yacht Calliope, around the tricky matter of Anthony Blunt’s honorary Fellowship of the RIBA at the time of the latter’s unmasking as a Soviet spy (Blunt took the proferred hint and resigned.) Jefferson acted as an adviser to the BBC as it sought the right architect to redevelop Portland Place.
Inevitably, the erudition, charm and sheer skill exhibited in both his practice and his presidency attracted wider attention. Characteristically modest, when he was offered the post of director general of design services at the PSA, he thought he was being consulted about likely candidates before finally realising the thrust of the questions and asking himself, ‘Who? Me?’
The post required Jefferson to act as architectural advisor to the secretary of state for the environment and he found his way easily about the corridors of Marsham Street and beyond, leading to further positions as chairman of PSA Projects and architectural adviser to the Department of National Heritage (now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) before retirement from public office after 17 years and at the age of 73. He was not replaced: by playing his part in the establishment of the briefly powerful Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), Jefferson himself made redundant – the last of his public offices.
Almost exactly coincident with Jefferson’s retirement came a diagnosis of leukaemia but the disease was kept at bay by a combination of will – beneath the most velvet of exteriors was the hardest of Sheffield’s steel – an ability always to focus on the positive, the happy characteristics of a cheeky good humour and sharp, but never unkind, wit and, without doubt, the support and care of his wife and soul-mate, Jean.
His practice’s buildings continue to serve their purpose into their second half-century (he enjoyed the fact that his creations were being listed and floodlit whilst those of his friends were being demolished!) but the part that he played in persuading those in power of the importance and benefits of architecture in our society will remain an act that is hard to follow. He leaves Jean and his sons Peter and David and their families.