Teacher, writer and designer – intriguing thinker who had a profound influence on generations of students
In 1994, shortly before starting at the Bartlett School of Architecture, I picked up a brochure describing the postgraduate architectural studios on offer. The text for Unit 12 was brief and to the point. There were no digressions into chaos theory or bird migration patterns or whatever else was fashionable. But neither were the words reductive or simplistic. They were pithy but playful, clear-eyed but canny, the world of architecture deconstructed momentarily allowing new ideas to emerge.
They were written by Jonathan Hill. I joined the unit that he led – with various co-teachers – for over 30 years. He was a thoughtful, generous and tireless critic. His method was tangential and oblique: he teased out ideas, probed alternatives and made enigmatic, elliptical statements. He wore his learning lightly and never used clichés. Unlike some theoretically inclined tutors, Jonathan really loved architecture, often surprising and unlikely kinds of architecture. His tastes and views were always his own, never normative and always provocative and intriguing.
Jonathan’s unit was a special space; it nursed an interest in the user and the occupation of architecture and the political circumstances in which buildings were made. Later, it embraced the baroque, the decorative and even post modernism, but always with that enquiring, quizzical spirit that was so much a part of Jonathan’s character. ‘Architecture can be made from anything,’ he used to say, and projects in the studio proposed such unlikely materials as hot water bottles, feathers, cotton fields and steam. But he also meant it less literally, as a way to open the subject and the profession to new ways of thinking.
Jonathan was a designer as well as a writer and teacher. He pioneered the idea that design was itself a form of research and he set up and directed the Bartlett’s Architectural Design MPhil/PhD programme. His books contained research and scholarship – but were speculative and propositional too. The Illegal Architect (1998) included a series of delicate and beautiful drawings describing intriguing spaces and enigmatic forms. Weather Architecture (2012) moved between understandings of buildings in relation to natural forces. Both were also a critique of the profession, the narrowness of its technical discourse and the hidden ideologies in its thinking.
If there was a thread that ran through Jonathan’s work, it was a fascination with what happens to buildings after they have been built. The occupation of architecture, the effects of time and weather, the actions of people and institutions were all fundamental to his understanding. It was a position alert to both the political and poetic aspects of architecture. It rejected narrow ideas of functionality and treated buildings as cultural objects to be used, adapted, read and re-read.
After I left The Bartlett, I would meet Jonathan at exhibitions and talks and social events. He was ageless and ever present: fresh-faced, unchanging, always himself. His preternatural youthfulness was part of his charm. While everything moved on, Jonathan was always Jonathan – interested, intrigued, ready for a chat. Endearingly he liked gossip and he kept up with a lot of people.
He leaves an impressive body of work and generations of graduates whose approach to architecture has been profoundly and positively shaped by his teaching. Jonathan was a gentle soul with a sharp mind whose deceptively simple words revealed great depths of thinking. He is a huge loss and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and his wife, Izabela Wieczorek.
Charles Holland leads Charles Holland Architects and is professor of architecture at UCA Canterbury