Peter Blundell Jones (1949–2016)

Peter Blundell Jones, 2009. Photo: Peter Lathey.

PETER BLUNDELL JONES WAS A RARITY: an architectural historian who could read technical drawings. This ability wasn’t simply a hangover from his professional training at the Architectural Association in London in the late 1960s, but an important aspect of the kind of historian he was. Peter believed in history as a means to enlighten the present moment. He believed that the study of the past could provide a wide-angle view critical for understanding the fluctuating but enduring responsibilities of architecture, to ultimately make it better. Early in his career he brought to the attention of English-speaking audiences the work of German architects outside the established twentieth-century canon—most notably Hans Scharoun and Hugo Häring—because he found in their anxious modernism a more meaningful engagement with the persistent dilemmas of our time.

The value of architecture remained rooted in a social context for Peter, who had little time for the self-indulgences of taste and genius. He used to say that the main role of history in architectural education, and in the lifelong education of architects, was to get them away from the personal and the subjective, from the uncritical “I like,” and to lead them to the serious business of relevance. The spectacular products of corporate architecture and the obscure constructs of disembodied theory would provoke Peter’s ire in equal measure. For him, architecture was first and foremost a physical reality to be experienced with the whole body moving through it, rather than something to simply look at or think about. As his influential books on modern architecture show, it is through such engagement with the actual and the specific—building, place, detail—that the depths of architecture’s social and cultural purpose can be accessed. And just as he always organized his own historical studies around the in-depth analysis of specific case studies, he urged architecture students writing their dissertations to stay focused and resist the urge to produce what he called a “discourse of everything,” as the grand ideas that youth laudably seeks to convey turn to nonsense outside the specificity of situations.

Between social anthropology and tectonics, idea and building, language and drawing, through countless collaborations in print and in person, from the Architectural Review to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and throughout his long teaching career in Cambridge, London, and Sheffield, Peter’s project had an impeccably humanist pedigree. Architecture and Ritual (2016), the last book he was to publish, is focused, in his own words, on “how architecture affects people’s lives”—but this could have been a caption for his entire oeuvre. The bravery—some might say foolhardiness—of seeking ritual in the architecture of modernity, discussed side by side with traditional non-Western examples, is characteristic of a mind that refused to be pigeonholed, persisting with the quest of architecture’s relevance for humanity at its broadest, while remaining grounded in the concreteness of reality.

Scharoun, a seminal influence on Peter, built his Philharmonie and Staatsbibliothek at a time and place of fractious divisions and illiberalism—’60s West Berlin, abutting the Wall, as part of an ill-conceived Kulturforum that the West Germans planned to show their eastern neighbors how much more civilized—and affluent—the western side was. Yet Scharoun managed to produce buildings of great optimism, eschewing monumentality and creating wonderfully inclusive, exuberant spaces, celebrating community through the sharing of art and knowledge. It is a great loss for the architectural community that Peter is no longer with us to give his legendary Scharoun lecture, and to inspire with his conviction and generosity. But his work lives on, suddenly more relevant than ever, to remind us just how important such deeply humanist architecture is in these strangely regressive days.

Alexandra Stara is associate professor and reader in the history and theory of architecture at Kingston University, London.