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Obituary: Peter Jacob 1942–2023, academic who fostered a ‘sense that we were changing the world’

Trevor Garnham

Supportive, compassionate and open-minded head of architecture at Kingston University, a ‘benign presence’ who gave students and staff space to explore their ideas

Peter Jacob.
Peter Jacob. Credit: Jacob family

Peter Jacob, who has died at the age of 81, was an architect and committed teacher who, as  former head of Kingston University School of Architecture, fostered a diverse and energetic academic community.

He had a long career at Kingston, beginning shortly after the completion of his own studies – a Bachelor of Arts at Kings College Durham University, followed by qualification in architecture with a BA and diploma from Newcastle University. He took up a post as a senior lecturer at Kingston Polytechnic – as was – in the late 1960s, and remained at the school until his retirement in 2002.

During his early and middle years he was part of an exceptionally talented staff, which included such charismatic figures as Tim Bell, John Farmer, Howard Martin and David Dunster. Teaching Town Studies during this period – with inevitable sessions in local pubs – he impressed students with a rendering of folk songs in his fine singing voice. Following a period as acting head, he was appointed head of school in 1988 and made professor shortly afterwards; his professorial address was titled ‘Palladio and Architectural Education’.

The school was particularly vibrant under Peter’s leadership, gaining great respect among the architectural community. He introduced many talented young staff, several of whom went on to great success in both practice and academia, such as Jeremy Till and Katerina Ruedi.

Peter was happy to sit in the background and to take the pressure off his colleagues, allowing them to pursue diverse interests, even if he disagreed with them

Young teachers recruited by Peter recall a supportive, compassionate and open-minded head. ‘Peter was happy to sit in the background and to take the pressure off his colleagues, allowing them to pursue diverse interests, even if he disagreed with them,’ says Patrick Lynch, co-founder of Lynch Architects. ‘He took the flack without complaining, making time and space for more flamboyant team mates to excel, and occasionally to make fools of themselves. In this regard, he was very effective as a manager, and the ongoing ethos of a school committed to the practical art of architecture was allowed to establish itself within the orbit of his benign presence.’

Sarah Wigglesworth, who was teaching at the school at the time of Peter’s appointment, recalls an influx of interesting and exciting young architects, theorists and artists. ‘There was great energy and a sense that we were changing the world,’ she says. ‘The art school setting, with its bar by the Hogsmill River, provided a febrile setting for discourse, generally tolerated by Peter! Kingston gave everyone space to explore their ideas, [which was] critical for my development as an architect.’

When I joined the staff, he told me that I ‘should teach as I saw fit’ and that he would ‘only intervene if something looked wrong’. He often liked to say that his job was ‘to keep “them” away from us’; “them” being the ever-burgeoning university management. For anyone teaching in a school where superficially ‘objective’ metrics and assessments have come to proliferate, one could ask for little more from the head.

He proved to be an outstanding manager, too. Members of RIBA visiting boards always commented on how well-prepared the paperwork had been, and how well organised were the various presentations. He was an active member of the RIBA, involved in visiting board panels, and was chair of the Education Trust Funds Committee from 2000 to 2009.

Peter had no particular desire to be an academic but, having pursued an early interest in conservation – he taught a pioneering course in the early 1980s – he channelled this particular interest into research time with a small, successful practice.

On retirement Peter moved to Gloucestershire where he spent happy years close to his daughter and her family, through struggled for some time with heart-related problems. He is survived by his wife Lesley, his daughter Katharine and two grandsons, who are fund-raising for the British Heart Foundation in his memory.

Trevor Garnham is an architect, historian and critic