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Peter Blundell Jones 1949 – 2016

Robert Evans

Sheffield professor who combined practice with teaching and writing and had an unerring ability to get to the heart of any proposal

Peter Blundell Jones 1949 – 2016
Peter Blundell Jones 1949 – 2016 Credit: Suzanne Berry

‘But why do you want everyone to walk past the toilets?’ This typically pithy observation – delivered with his familiar mischievous grin – proved to be one of Peter Blundell Jones’ last contributions to Evans Vettori, is his capacity as frequent ‘guest critic’. The agreed fee for this invaluable service was a hearty lunch. His earlier crit of our embryonic Nottingham Trent University Clifton scheme (RIBAJ March 2016) was instrumental in crystallising the three-dimensional relationships, by interrogating how students would experience it. 

PBJ (to all those who knew him) died in August at the age of 67 after a short illness. He lived life adventurously; was a professor of architecture, writer, historian and mentor to many. He was born near Exeter. Both his parents were medics, but he had more artistic leanings. 

After studying at the Architectural Association, London, (1966-72) he successively taught at the University of Cambridge, was a freelance architectural journalist, and a reader at South Bank University. In 1994 he became professor of architecture, at the University of Sheffield. He was passionate and prolific, writing around 550 journal publications (many for AR), and 20-odd well-known books including definitive works on Scharoun and Häring with a gift for analysing and explaining highly complex ideas in easily accessible and entertaining language.

He had an archetypally professorial appearance – bookish, with goldfish-bowl glasses and slightly awkward gait. But he was full of surprises. Not content with being an eminent academic, he loved to be involved in practice and building. He once showed me round the fiendishly complex ‘Roundhouse’ in Devon, which he had designed for his parents, soon after qualifying. It had clearly been a test-bed of his architectural thinking. Sure enough, we found his mother sitting in his purpose-designed central ‘cockpit’ – an idea we have since recycled on our own house designs. His idyllic mill conversion in Grindleford was published in The Architects’ Journal, and won several awards. More recently, he converted another derelict building in Hesdin, near Calais. PBJ was also a practical man. To my amazement, he revealed a passion for motor mechanics. His choice of cars typified his tastes – Citroen CXs and Alfa 159s. He also relished log-chopping and paddling his coracle out into his millpond.

For his 50th birthday, not for him the normal boozy party. The local art-house cinema was hired out for a showing of Jacques Tati’s ‘Mon Oncle’. His gleeful guffawing reminded us that he, like Monsieur Hulot, was something of a technophobe, who enjoyed poking fun at the follies of ‘modern living’.

When I first met Peter at Sheffield in 1994  I was rather in awe of such a famous writer and historian. However, I soon realised how accessible, open and kind he was. While students may have dreaded his forensic analysis, we tutors would try to accompany him on crits, where his questioning would inevitably expose any weaknesses. As so many of those he taught will testify, he had an amazing ability to get straight to the heart of the matter to tell what was important (habitation, spatial sequence) from what was not (lazy assumptions, vain shape-making). 

To understand built projects, he insisted on a site visit and on taking his own photos – others’ he dismissed as ‘not telling you about the architecture’. He always asked for plans and sections to gain an understanding, and was suspicious of image-based architecture. He saw architecture as a social and collaborative art. He taught us that all projects should start with an in-depth investigation of the site’s history. Always in search of the authentic, and with an infallible instinct for spotting the phony, he delighted in leading ambitious model-building projects (Victorian Sheffield, Scharoun’s asymmetrical Mannheim theatre). He was a natural collaborator with countless other academics, seeking out and supporting many unsung architects such as David Lea, Peter Hübner and Giancarlo De Carlo. As he once said: ‘The lesser-known were no less gifted and are no less valuable as examples.’

His premature death has deprived so many of his unique knowledge and intellect, just when he was looking forward to having more time for new ventures, away from the bureaucracies of university life. Peter is survived by his wife, the writer Christine Poulson, their daughter Anna, and children Timothy and Claire from his first marriage. Always humane, he truly was a ‘professor who professed’. He will be greatly missed.