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Obituary: Bryan Jefferson (1928 - 2014)

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Jefferson Sheard managing director Tom Rhys Jones remembers ‘a man of too much energy and vision to be contained within one city’

‘Bryan Jefferson offered wise advice to ministers on subjects ranging from architectural competitions to policy’ wrote Paul Finch in a recent edition of the Architects Journal (AJ 03.09.14). This advice was solidly founded upon the experiences gained in the crucible of practice at a time when architecture sought to evaluate its impact upon society and to contribute to, if not lead, its progress to a better future. Bryan Jefferson’s more recent career in public office perhaps obscures to some degree the successes of his earlier days in practice and the purely architectural skills employed in the design of his keynote buildings are felt by many, myself included, to be overdue a proper appreciation and assessment.

Jefferson was born in Sheffield in 1928 and, following the death of his father in the first blitz on the city, was sent to be educated at Lady Manners School, Bakewell before studying architecture at the University of Sheffield.

Upon graduation he joined the new practice set up in Derby by the distinguished Irish architect Major Sam Morrison before being sent back home to open the practice’s Sheffield office. The Sheffield venture metamorphosed via Morrison Partners and Jefferson into Jefferson and Partners and, by 1957, with the arrival of Jefferson’s friend and fellow alumnus Gerald (Gerry) Sheard, into Jefferson Sheard and Partners.

Early commissions included a series of private houses in the Huddersfield area – something of a hotspot for progressive residential design at that time with Peter Womersley’s  Farnley Hey having been recently completed – but Jefferson’s bigger opportunities arose back in Sheffield where post-war reconstruction and a radical remodelling of the city was gathering momentum.

Perhaps the most enduring – and, certainly, the most talked-about - of Jefferson’s major buildings was one of the first, the immaculately detailed Brutalist behemoth of an electricity substation commissioned by the CEGB in the early 60’s. Commended in the 1968 Financial Times Architectural Awards and statutorily Listed Grade II in 2013, this is one of Sheffield’s best-known landmarks, floodlit by the Council in 2010 and greatly loved or reviled despite a large part of the citizenry having no idea what goes on within! The switching-on of the floodlighting was the occasion of Jefferson’s last official visit to his home city and an abiding memory is of him signing copies of the artist Jonathan Wilkinson’s  specially commissioned painting of the building whilst surrounded by a new generation of admirers eager to meet its creator.

No less starkly dramatic, but less visible, was another grittily utilitarian public work, the City Council’s Olive Grove depot, displaying a similarly skilful touch in its detailing, following which the practice embarked on a series of less muscular but still elegantly nonsense-free developments such as a Cinema and Entertainment complex on Pond Street (known to subsequent generations of Sheffielders as the “Fiesta”, “Roxy” or “O2”), offices for the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (now the AEU) and for Eagle Star and the Probation Service.

Bryan Jefferson

The Fiesta Building on Sheffield’s Pond Street by Jefferson Sheard

A smaller project, but one that could not have been more of a labour of love, was the headquarters of the Derbyshire and Lancashire Gliding Club at Great Hucklow in the Peak District. Jefferson developed a life-long love of gliding at sixteen and competed sufficiently successfully to make the English Gliding Team.

If he was so enabled to slip the surly bonds of earth, Bryan Jefferson was also a man of too much energy and vision to be contained within one city and his influence within the profession grew such that he was elected to serve as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects between 1979 and 1981. A natural diplomat (he is the only man I have ever thanked for giving me a “rocket!”) Jefferson’s many successes as President included navigating, as skilfully as if he were at the tiller of his yacht Calliope, around the tricky matter of Anthony Blunt’s honorary Fellowship of the RIBA at the time of the latter’s unmasking as a Soviet spy (Blunt took the proferred hint and resigned.)

Such prominent office  gave rise to projects of a yet higher profile and a more diverse client base but also to Jefferson’s swansong as a private practitioner – the restrained Peterborough Software headquarters built, controversially, within the grounds of the Grade I listed Thorpe Hall was the last major project delivered by Jefferson Sheard during his partnership – the wider world was drawing him further afield to act, for example, as an adviser to the BBC as it sought the right architect for its then proposed Portland Place redevelopment.

Inevitably, the erudition, charm and sheer skill exhibited in both his practice and his Presidency attracted wider attention and it was no surprise to anyone other than his modest self when Jefferson was offered the post of Director General of Design Services at the Property Services Agency (PSA) – he himself thought he was being consulted about likely candidates before finally realising the thrust of the questions and asking himself “Who? Me?!”

The post required Jefferson to act as Architectural Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Environment and he found his way easily about the corridors of Marsham Street and beyond, leading to further positions as Chairman of PSA Projects and Architectural Adviser to the Department of National Heritage (now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) before retirement from public office after seventeen years and at the age of 73. One might well believe that by playing his part in the establishment of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), Jefferson himself made redundant the last of his public offices.

Despite the demands upon him Jefferson found time to act as Visiting Professor at his alma mater from 1992 and to serve, in an advisory capacity, on many industry bodies including the Building Centre Trust, the Cement and Concrete Association and the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers.

Almost exactly coincident with Jefferson’s retirement came a diagnosis of leukaemia but the disease was kept at bay by a combination of will – beneath the most velvet of exteriors was the hardest of Sheffield’s steel – an ability always to focus on the positive, the happy characteristics of a cheeky good humour and sharp, but never unkind, wit and, without doubt, the support and care of his wife and soul-mate, Jean.

Bryan Jefferson, the man, his life and his works - were masterpieces of understated elegance yet solid and of real substance; his practice’s buildings continue to serve their purpose into their second half-century (he enjoyed the fact that his creations were being listed and floodlit whilst those of his friends were being demolished!) but the part that he played in persuading those in power of the importance and benefits of architecture in our society will remain an act that is hard to follow.

  • Tom Rhys Jones, managing director, Jefferson Sheard
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