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‘PBJ’s premature passing robs architecture of a compellingly humane intellect’

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Catherine Slessor remembers Peter Blundell Jones, who died of cancer on Friday

Somewhat inevitably, I first encountered Peter Blundell Jones at lunch. It was the early ’90s and the AR was exiled in Clerkenwell, across the street from Zaha Hadid’s office. Peter Davey, the then editor, took us to Gazzano’s, the famous Sicilian restaurant and deli in Farringdon Road. There was copious Chianti consumption and enthusiastic discussion of Styria, the Austrian province and epicentre of the Graz school of architecture, which at the time was providing an energetic retort to the pomposity of Vienna. PBJ, as everyone knew him, seemed infinitely knowledgeable, slightly waspish and clearly liked his Chianti.

Along with Peter Davey and Peter Buchanan, Blundell Jones completed the triumvirate of Peters who illuminated the AR from the ’80s to the present day. Under Davey’s generalship, the Peters fanned out over Europe, Davey doing Scandinavia, Buchanan taking The Netherlands and Spain, and PBJ exploring Austria, Belgium, Italy and Germany. He could read, write and speak German fluently (self-taught, so it was said) and undertook successive missions to report on the activities of people he considered interesting, as opposed to the usual superstar suspects.

His AR writings probed intensively into the guts and the process of architecture

Many became friends, including Peter Hübner, Günter Behnisch, Lucien Kroll, Szyszkowitz and Kowalski and Giancarlo De Carlo. His AR writings probed intensively into the guts and the process of architecture – how it was conceived, constructed and endured – always emphasising the human factor.

Often he would supply his own photographs (to the despair of successive art editors) and invariably there would be extensive, scholarly footnotes (to the despair of successive sub-editors). But, cutting through the precious, gadfly world of architectural magazines, he always made his point.

His deeply held conviction that architecture is a social art consistently underscored his thoughts and deeds. He believed buildings were inherently mutable, not static art objects, and should change and respond over time, and that there were lessons to be learnt from how architecture is transformed by use, ritual and human inflection.

Peter blundell jones

Peter blundell jones

He was an energetic proponent of building revisits, woefully under-represented in the current architectural press, and now getting harder to pull off in a cultural climate in thrall to the box-fresh bauble. When the AR was relaunched in October 2011, a particular highlight was PBJ’s revisit of Park Hill in Sheffield, a city whose buildings and history he knew intimately from his lengthy stint helming and teaching in its school of architecture.

As a scholar and historian devoted to the dissemination of knowledge and ideas, he had a healthy disdain for the creeping tide of neoliberalism and the insidious machinations of bureaucracy, whether in academe or publishing. He knew that life was too short and too cosmic for weasel words and box-ticking.

And, of course, he was right. His premature passing robs architecture of a compellingly humane intellect and, coming after the death of fellow historian and AR contributor Martin Meade at the end of last year, extinguishes yet another point of light in a generational constellation of critics.

Catherine Slessor is a former editor of The Architectural Review and is an AJ columnist

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