Friday, November 3, 2023


In the summer of 1996 I was living in Berlin, emerging from a long winter in every sense. Planning my return to London and studying for my diploma at the Bartlett school of architecture, I picked up a catalogue describing the various teaching studios on offer. The text for Studio 12 was brief, pithy and to the point. It was written in words that were clear like water but also slippery like ice. There was no flannel, no long digressions into chaos theory or bird migration patterns or the importance of the fold or whatever else was fashionable at the time. But neither were the words reductive or simplistic. They were simple but playful, clear-eyed but canny, the world of architecture deconstructed momentarily so new ideas and thoughts could emerge. 

The words were written by Jonathan Hill and when I arrived at the Bartlett that Autumn I joined his studio. It was a funny year. I wasn’t an especially good student….things got in the way, friendships got formed and relationships started and a little too much fun was had. I sensed Jonathan’s frustration but he remained - as he always was - a generous, tireless, thoughtful critic. His method was often tangential and oblique: he teased out ideas, probed alternatives and made elliptical, somewhat enigmatic statements. He wore his learning lightly and he never used cliches. Unlike a lot of sharp critics he really loved architecture, often surprising and unlikely kinds of architecture. His taste and views were always his own, never normative but somehow gently provocative.

Studio 12 was well on the way to becoming a legendary teaching unit at that point but it was still early days. Within the Bartlett it offered a sanctuary from the insectoid architecture that predominated, the complex welded contraptions and whimsical creatures that emerged from the workshops. Unit 12 was a space for another kind of enquiry and invention, it nursed an interest in the user and the occupation of architecture, the political circumstances in which buildings happened and the conventions of practice versus the avant-garde. Later it embraced interests in historical inflection, the baroque, the decorative and the outer reaches of post modernism…but it always did so with that enquiring, quizzical spirit that was so much a part of Jonathan’s character.

Jonathan wrote beautifully and his books pushed into fascinating areas….like that course brochure, he had a way of being both clear and richly alert to complexity. He never narrowed things down or looked for easy answers….the joy was in the search and the openness to invention, though always guided by a desire to avoid the obvious and the cliched.

After the Bartlett I would see Jonathan at events and talks and sometimes at social events. He was a friend of sorts, not a close one but someone I always enjoyed seeing. He invited me to crits and when I came to the school to give a lecture, he provided a warm and generous introduction. Jonathan was a fixture in a way, a one-man institution. if anyone summed up the best things about the Bartlett it was Jonathan, who brought an unashamed intellectualism and a subtly anarchic spirit to offset the bombast. He inspired a lot of people and influenced a multitude of practices and careers. He seemed to love the Bartlett and to enjoy his unique status within it.

The news of his death this week then came as a profound shock. He was somehow ageless and ever present. Unchanging and entirely himself. His preternatural youthfulness was part of his charm, a sense that whilst everything moved on and disappointments and achievements came and went, Jonathan was always Jonathan, fresh faced despite the years, dressed the same, and always interested, intrigued, up for a drink. He liked gossip and he kept up with a lot of people. Unlike an awful lot of tutors it felt that he really liked his students. 

He has left behind an impressive body of work, some great writing and several generations of graduates whose work and approach to architecture was profoundly and positively affected by his guidance. Thats his professional legacy. I know little of his private one though I am sure he was hugely loved and valued. He was a gentle soul with a sharp mind whose deceptively simple words revealed great depths of thinking. He was also a lovely guy.

Jonathan Hill RIP


Anonymous said...

v nice charles

pete barber said...


Dr Liz Walder said...

Thank you Charles. A much appreciated and heartfelt appreciation of Jonathan's life in architecture.

Liza Fior said...

Charles - thank you for writing that appreciated