Jonathan Sergison pays tribute to architect and friend Jonathan Woolf who died, aged 54, last weekend
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‘In the distinguished new English movement of “invisible architecture” Jonathan is the sharpest and most spirited one. He stands for what I understand as English sophistication.’
These words by Valerio Olgiati underline the importance and status Jonathan Woolf had for many architects in Europe. His death last weekend has robbed British architecture of a special talent and I am struggling to come to terms with what this means at many levels.
Jonathan was an original thinker who resisted conformity and easy categorisation. The projects and buildings he created are imbued with ideas and an artistry that cannot be replicated.
Above all, I feel the loss of a loyal, kind and generous friend I had the pleasure and good fortune of knowing for 25 years and with whom I shared journeys through life and architecture.
His approach to life involved limitless humour. What would seem commonplace, ordinary or trivial to many, could be retold by Jonathan in a way that was extremely funny, revealing the comic and sometimes farcical aspects of the human condition. Something of this outlook found its way into his architecture – but one would need to look carefully.
Jonathan (pictured below with Alvaro Siza, left) was born in London in 1961 and grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He undertook his formal architectural education at the Kingston School of Architecture, where he was taught by Brendan Woods, Werner Kreis and David Dunster, among others. In fact Woods was so impressed with his degree portfolio that he instigated a prize for the best student, with Jonathan being the first recipient.
After working for Munkenbeck + Marshall among others, Jonathan opened his own architectural studio in 1991. He enjoyed early success, winning the Smithfield Market competition in Dublin (with Jonathan McDowell and Renato Benedetti) and an Italian furniture design competition.
Of the numerous projects he realised, many addressed questions of domesticity and notions of dwelling. Three projects stand out: the Brick Leaf House, Hampstead, 2003; the Painted House, Golders Green, 2009; and The Lost Villa, Nairobi, Kenya, 2014.
The Brick Leaf house came to represent what was perceived by many in mainland Europe as a ‘London architecture’; the Painted House is a radical remodelling of the English semi-detached house; and The Lost Villa is a plastic and topographic investigation constructed from local stone and intentionally suggesting timelessness; a sense that the house is an inhabited ruin. For these three great projects alone and their contribution to the discipline of architecture we should be grateful.
In addition to his work in practice, Jonathan was a gifted and inspirational teacher. Between 1995 and 1998 he taught at the Architectural Association with Philippe Barthélémy. In 2003 he was made professor of the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, a position he held until 2007. Between 2007 and 2009 he was a guest professor at the Accademia di Mendrisio in Switzerland. More recently he taught at his former school in Kingston, which only a few weeks ago recognised his outstanding career as an educator and architect by awarding him an honorary doctorate.
Jonathan is survived by his wife Siobhan, two young daughters Olivia and Natalie, parents Ben and Josephine, sister Deborah, and by the many friends that have been touched by his exceptional personality.
Jonathan Sergison is co-founder of Sergison Bates Architects