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Obituary: Jonathan Woolf (1961 – 2015) 


Jonathan Woolf, described as ‘one of the most significant architects of his generation’, has died aged 54

The much-respected architect and academic, who was best known for his RIBA Award-winning Brick Leaf House, had been suffering from cancer.

Born in London, Woolf studied architecture at Kingston University. He showed talent as a student with the university establishing a portfolio prize to recognise his degree project. After his studies he went on to work in practices in Rome and London.

One of his first jobs was at the office of Munkenbeck and Marshall where he worked as the project architect on a house for art collector Charles Saatchi, which paved the way for his later private housing schemes.

Woolf founded his practice Jonathan Woolf Architects in 1990 after winning two international competitions – one for the urban development of Dublin and another for office furniture systems.

The 24-year-old practice, which works on projects both throughout Europe and Africa, went on to complete more than 35 projects including apartments, houses, studios, offices and hotels.

His company won a RIBA Award in 2003 for its Brick Leaf House in Hampstead, north London, which also went on to reach the mid-list for the Stirling Prize (AJ 26.08.04).

The practice began working in Africa seven years ago and had recently completed a private house in Nairobi (Architectural Review 03.02.15).

Woolf was also well-regarded for his teaching and has taught in schools across the UK including the University of Bath, the Architectural Association, the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, and Kingston University.

In July, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Kingston University.

Daniel Rosbottom, co-founder of DRDH Architects who gave the speech awarding Woolf the doctorate, described him as the ‘one of the most significant architects of his generation and a great teacher’.

He added: ‘Beyond that he was a warm, generous, funny and inspirational person who will be greatly missed by everyone who had the good fortune to know him.’

AJ critic-at-large Ellis Woodman described Woolf’s work as ‘distinguished by a combination of qualities that is exceptionally rare in contemporary architecture’.

‘On the one hand it is the product of a profound engagement with history; on the other it remains strikingly free of eclecticism.  Above all its concerns lies with the enrichment of space whether through a poetic response to the topography of a site or the artful distribution of a sequence of rooms’, he said.

‘He does not leave a large body of work but it is one of real originality which I have no doubt will assert a considerable influence in the years to come.’

Projects by Jonathan Woolf Architects in the AJ Buildings Library

Brick Leaf House by Jonathan Woolf Architects

Brick Leaf House (2002)

Painted House by Jonathan Woolf Architects

Painted House (2009)

Daniel Rosbottom’s full citation for Jonathan Woolf’s honorary doctorate from Kingston University

In 2008, the year I arrived at the University, the School of Architecture and Landscape gave an honorary Doctorate to one of its celebrated alumni, the architect Sir David Chipperfield. It is with great pleasure that I conclude my time here by honouring another - one of the most important architects and teachers of my own generation, Jonathan Woolf.

Thirty years ago Jonathan, like many of you sitting here today, was graduating from his degree in Architecture at Kingston. In his final year as a student he designed a housing competition, set up by Aldo van Eyck, for a site in Venice. A city he has returned to with his own students, during his time here as a teacher. He was taught that year by Brendan Woods, who is also here today. Brendan recalls how outstanding Jonathan’s work was even at that early stage. The undergraduate portfolio prize that has been awarded since, was first established to recognise his degree project

Following graduation Jonathan worked in Rome and London until, whilst in the office of Munkenbeck and Marshall, he was given the opportunity to be project architect for the house of art collector Charles Saatchi - a precursor to the series of exemplary private houses, which have come to define his career to date.

He established his practice in 1990, following success in two international competitions. One for the design of a new furniture system and the other an urban regeneration project in Dublin. Together they demonstrated an early mastery across a breadth of scale that has since allowed Jonathan to reflect so compellingly, as both an architect and a teacher of architects, on the role of the house in the city - to appropriate the title of one of his favourite books.

This remarkable ability to synthesise ideas of the room, the city and the landscape, history and modernity or the monumental and the mundane into a singular, refined and coherent work of architecture is expressed nowhere more clearly than in his 2007 shortlisted competition entry for the extension to the Stockholm Library, which was for me and many others, by far the most eloquent response to Asplund’s masterpiece.

His breakthrough had come in 1998 when he was chosen from a RIBA shortlist to design Brick Leaf House in Hampstead. Two dwellings for two brothers, embedded within a singular brick form, the house introduced us both to Jonathan’s ability to embody human relationships through spatial and tectonic means and to a sensibility that oscillates between the figurative and the powerfully abstract. Addressing universal concerns through finely tuned responses to the particular.

Brick Leaf House was the first domestic project to achieve a Stirling Prize shortlisting and as fellow architect Jonathan Sergison notes, it made a difference to what the world understands as a ‘London architecture.’

A subsequent project, Painted House, which transformed two semi-detached houses into one extraordinary dwelling, extends this thought to address the city’s singular suburban legacy. The celebrated Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati, describes Brick Leaf House and Painted House as ‘Two very beautiful buildings’ that are ‘rooted in the urban traditions of elegant and calm English architecture.’ Yet whilst these and other projects speak articulately of a London that Jonathan grew up in and knows intimately, they are also placed beyond it, within a broader understanding of modernity and an encompassing lineage of architectural history and thought.

The critic, director of the Architecture Foundation and Kingston colleague Ellis Woodman, says of Jonathan’s work that “it is distinguished by a combination of qualities that are exceptionally rare in contemporary architecture.  On the one hand it is the product of a profound engagement with history; on the other it remains strikingly free of eclecticism.  Above all its concerns lie with the enrichment of space whether through a poetic response to the topography of a site or the artful distribution of a sequence of rooms.  Inviting but never prescribing inhabitation, it is an architecture as generous, observant and inspirational as its author.”

For anyone who has spent time with Jonathan, those personal qualities will feel familiar. They foster the sustained and sustaining relationships he builds with and for those fortunate enough to commission and work with him. The sequence of multi generational, extended family houses that commenced with Brick Leaf house are a remarkable body of work which encompass innately urban qualities in their exploration of proximity and communality. The most recent is the Lost Villa in Kenya, which Olgiati interprets as ‘a centre of the world, a public piazza under a roof.’

Such thoughts underline the significant contribution thatJonathan’s houses make not only to the canon of domestic architecture but to architecture as a whole, in their ability to encompass both private and intimate public life. His buildings are intertwined with that life and they tell stories about how people are able to live together.

In another reflection on his work, former Kingston colleague, the architectural theorist and writer Irina Davidovici suggests that ‘for some architects the most immediate source of inspiration is not internal – personal creativity – but external: the world. Jonathan’s architecture has the kind of openness that is characteristic of this condition. It doesn’t impose, it responds. Originality manifests itself through the unexpected juxtaposition of elements, or fragments, that are normally unrelated. In a word – wit, if wit is understood not as mere conversational skill but in a more profound sense, as the capacity to reveal the hidden relationships between distant phenomena.’

In parallel with practice, Jonathan has brought openness, wit and the sharpest of critical intellects to the education of architects over the last twenty years. He taught at two of Europe’s most prestigious Schools, the Architectural Association in London and the Academia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland, before being appointed as Professor of Architecture at Aberdeen, where for several years he brought together practitioners from across Europe, helping to inform a generation.

For the last four years we have been extremely fortunate in having him as a colleague within the School of Architecture at Kingston, where his knowledge and insights have been critical in informing what we are and collectively do. Like countless others, those Kingston students who have been fortunate enough to be taught or reviewed by him, will have left wiser, more cultivated and with the certain knowledge that serious architecture should always be tempered with humour and conditioned by civility.

The distinguished practitioner and academic Professor Tony Fretton describes Jonathan as ‘a very special talent - a true architect and a great teacher.’ I, and all of us who are his friends and colleagues here today, can only second that thought.

Further tributes

Tony Fretton, founder, Tony Fretton Architects
‘Laconic and extremely witty, especially during his last weeks, Jonathan was great talent. I first recognised this when seeing his anonymous entry as a judge of British Europan and later wrote about the Brick Leaf House. He was among the few architects whose work was truly poetic.’

Irina Davidovici, chair for the history of urban design, ETH Zurich
‘Jonathan Woolf was a subtle architect. He had the gift of finding the incidental in normal situations, and reinvesting it in built forms. As a lover of music, he understood composition. As a lover of wit, he understood metaphor. His buildings skirted convention and reinforced patterns of inhabitation, celebrating the small rituals of lives within.’ 

Brendan Woods, architect and tutor at Bartlett School of Architecture
‘Jonathan shared Siza’s poetic sense of space and the way in which detail resonates within that but also with a laconic wit that made him very much his own man e.g., The Painted House . 

‘His exploration of the freedom that the steel frame allows to create complex spatial sequences in the Brick Leaf house builds on Mies in the Krefeld houses and the work of the West Coast architects between the wars .

‘He was a unique talent in British Architecture and he will be very sorely missed.’ 


Readers' comments (6)

  • chris Dyson

    An Architectural poet i admired and sadly never got to know

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  • Such a tragic loss of an immense talent who created beautiful and memorable architecture. How very, very sad.

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  • During the five years we shared the Unit 5 at the Architectural Association, Jonathan has been a master beloved by students from all around the world thanks to his sensitive, constructive, witty crits and tutorials.
    "merci" for all of this my friend.

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  • Very sad to hear of the death of Jonathan Woolf, an architect I didn't know but whose work I admired.

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  • I am very upset by this news. I worked with Jonathan on a number of projects starting with Brick Leaf House and was always touched by his talent, sensitivity and ability to see the world just that bit differently all delivered with a fantastically dry sense of humour. I'll miss him.

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  • Such sad news. A great loss to British architecture. Woolfie was a rare type - talent and care, humour and dedication combined. I remember visiting the almost completed Brick Leaf house and marvelling at its artistic rigour and its spatial and social complexity. It's just an example of bloody good design. A delightful tension between use and privacy, fun and modest decorum lives on in his exemplary buildings. The last house looks like an early 21st century masterpiece.

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