Peter Blundell Jones (1949–2016)

Peter Blundell Jones, 2014. Photo: Jan Woudstra.

PETER BLUNDELL JONES was an important architectural historian who died from cancer at the age of sixty-seven following a short illness. PBJ—as he was fondly known—is widely recognized for bringing an alternative history of twentieth-century architecture to public attention. The standard histories of modern architecture shuffle the same pack of cards—Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, et. al.—in various orders according to stylistic and formal preferences. PBJ’s version of architectural history does not concentrate on form or style, but investigates the social purpose of architecture. The stable of architects with whom he is associated—Hans Scharoun, Peter Hübner, Hugo Häring, Giancarlo de Carlo, Lucien Kroll, David Lea, the Graz School, Gunnar Asplund—all root their practice in a deep understanding of its social and physical context.

PBJ would be much more interested in a building’s threshold than in the overall form of the building; the former represents a human encounter, while the latter can be abstracted from human experience. His focus on understanding the human experience of architecture meant he would only write about buildings that he had visited and generally would only use his own photographs in his publications and lectures, knowing that in normal architectural photography the life of the building is severely edited.

PBJ’s output was prodigious. Apart from monographs and book chapters, he was also a regular contributor to the Architectural Review and other journals. His writing was crystal clear, and so was his eye. He was educated as a designer at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, and remained a designer, most notably in the beautiful conversion of an old mill into his home in the Peak District. This meant that his historical analyses were always framed through the lens of a designer.

He was brilliant in front of a plan of a building, explaining exactly how bare lines constructed a density of social relations. PBJ presented these explanations most influentially in his teaching, first at Cambridge University, then at South Bank University, and finally from 1994 at the University of Sheffield. Although I was nominally his boss at Sheffield, such relationships did not really fit with Peter, a displacement of power that I have learned much from. He was a natural collaborator: with his colleagues, with his students, and with other academics. This was thanks to his insatiable curiosity, in my book a marker of any great intellectual. Academic life for him was not a matter of hoarding knowledge and claiming authority; it was about the sharing of ideas with the widest possible constituency. It was natural therefore that he should collaborate beyond architecture, because his understanding of the subject always placed it in a wider intellectual and social context.

His loss is profoundly felt at Sheffield and beyond, but it is not simply a commonplace to say that his legacy will live on: through the thousands of students whom he taught, and through his writings. We are lucky that he completed before he died what may turn out be his most influential book. Architecture and Ritual (2016) is in many ways a summation of his life’s work, interpreting as it does “how the rituals of life—from the grand to the mundane and everyday—are framed and defined in space by the buildings which we inhabit.” In the current era of an increasing capitulation of architecture to neoliberal forces, PBJ’s insistence on the ethical imperative of architecture—where ethics are understood in Emmanuel Levinas’s terms as one’s responsibility for the other—becomes ever more important.

Jeremy Till is head of Central Saint Martins and pro vice chancellor for research at the University of the Arts London.