Obituary Peter Blundell Jones

The following obituary, penned by Jan Woudstra, appeared in The Guardian on Thursday 15th September 2016.

When the architectural historian Peter Blundell Jones, who has died aged 67 of cancer, was a student, one building that was much in favour was the prize-winning, technology-led Centre Pompidou in Paris (1971). All the services were visible on the outside, and celebrated in form and colour.

This was a prototype of a kind of universal building and a systemic approach to architecture that Peter rejected, because it did not take account of social, historical or physical context.

He had entered the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture in London at the age of 17 in 1966, and found it a hotbed of radical ideas. The Archigram group was drawing on technology to envision a neofuturistic world that was expressed solely through hypothetical projects. At the same time, the young Charles Jencks was tutoring there, with Peter among his students, and developing the ideas for his influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977). The partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham, east London, in 1968 seemed to symbolise a failure of modernism.

At the AA Peter also encountered a wide range of German modernism. One of the lecturers, Thomas Stevens, used a villa by Hans Scharoun and a cowshed by Hugo Häring to demonstrate what he saw as a deficient approach to design, in that they had started from resolving how people use a building and move through and around it. Stevens dismissed the type of architecture that arose from it as “throwing walls up around the circulation pattern”. Yet to Peter these buildings had an immediate visual appeal, and represented more than anything “the freedom and transparency promised by the modern movement”.

Rather than focus on the buildings conventionally presented as exemplars of the modern movement and celebrated for their technological advancements, he became more interested in exploring the messy context of the relationship with people. In his own words, he became interested in “the irregular, in accumulated layers, in freehand, in the wrinkles of the ground, in place, in history, in participation, in spaces with which one could identify and where one could comfortably dwell”.

In his first book, Hans Scharoun (1978), derived from a thesis written at the AA, Peter provided an alternative reading of modernism, revealing a freedom of design liberated from the need to use right angles and thereby recovering “the choice of direction”. It brought home a need to articulate “content to make recognisable territories”, as well as the necessity for a response to site, neighbours and terrain. These were the guiding principles that were to determine Peter’s outlook and research.

The German designers whose work he warmed to had thus far been marginalised in published histories of the modern movement, and Peter’s work on Scharoun was therefore pioneering. He soon expanded his range to other architects who worked in similar fashions, including Häring, Alvar Aalto and Gunnar Asplund, while also investigating a younger generation who used these context-led approaches, such as Giancarlo De Carlo, Peter Hübner, Enric Miralles and Lucien Kroll.

While his publications provided a new perspective on alternative strands of modernism, he became conscious that they only adjusted the existing canon of modernist heroes. To provide a different reading and to celebrate the depth and complexity of the modern movement, Peter later settled on a case-study approach, focusing on individual buildings. This resulted in two volumes of Modern Architecture Through Case Studies (2002 and 2007), the second a collaboration with Eamonn Canniffe. They provide evidence “for the suppressed traditions and diversity in the modern movement”.

He always placed the human experience to the fore, and examined how that affected the relationship with the physical environment. With me, he produced a series of articles entitled Some Modernist Houses and Their Gardens, exploring how the inside and outdoors were connected. This approach also led to the books Architecture and Participation (2005), with Doina Petrescu and Jeremy Till, and Architecture and Movement: The Dynamic Experience of Buildings and Landscapes (2015), with Mark Meagher.

Architecture and Ritual (2016) explores “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”. It connects anthropology and architecture, commencing with a series of international cases that show “the creative diversity of a more broadly conceived modernism”. Peter illustrated how daily and other rituals were and continue to be central to the shaping of our environment. The book demonstrated that he was eager to share his ideas, arguments and insights, and open out beyond the narrowly defined boundaries of the professions.

Besides his writing, he also left some buildings, such as the Round House at Stoke Canon, Devon, which was his parents’ home, and the refurbished Padley Mill, Grindleford, Derbyshire. These show their pedigree in the more human side of modernism.

Peter, the second of three children, was born near Exeter, where his father, Geoffrey, was an orthopaedic surgeon, and his mother, Avis (née Dyer), a GP. He attended an Exeter preparatory school and Blundell’s School, Tiverton.

After he left the AA in 1972, he was commissioned to write the book on Scharoun. He then designed and built the Round House, and taught for a year at the North London Polytechnic and the University of Bath while also writing for the Architectural Review and Architectural Journal.

Peter was an assistant lecturer at Cambridge University (1979-83) and from 1988 a principal lecturer and then reader at the South London Polytechnic. In 1992 he was named architectural journalist of the year. In 1994 he was appointed professor at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.

His first wife, Rosalind (née Barron), whom he married in 1979, died in 1989. He is survived by his second wife, Christine (née Poulson), whom he married in 1994, and their daughter, Anna, and by the two children from his first marriage, Timothy and Claire.