Remembering John Christopher Knowles (1938-2018)
Earlier this month, the Tyler School of Art and Temple University families lost a cherished friend and colleague, John Christopher Knowles. His wife, Brigitte Knowles, senior associate dean and professor emerita at Tyler, wrote this obituary.
John Christopher Knowles, the founding chairperson of Architecture at Temple University, died March 18, 2018, of heart failure due to flu complications.
John was born in England on December 20, 1938. He came to Philadelphia from Nottingham to study at the University of Pennsylvania with the architect, Louis I. Kahn, who became both a friend and mentor.
Temple’s architecture program, which is now part of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, was founded under John at the recommendation of Kahn and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. At the time Drexel and Penn housed the only architecture degree programs in Philadelphia. The Temple program was seen as a way to diversify the profession. Beginning in 1971, John transformed architectural technology classes that were part of the College of Engineering curriculum into a four-year degree and a fully accredited five-year Bachelor of Architecture professional degree. He oversaw the Architecture Program’s first move from a Paul Cret-designed office building on North Broad Street into its own classroom and studio spaces at 12th and Norris Streets.
By his personality, professionalism and close acquaintance with some of the most important teachers and practitioners of the mid-20th century, John set the very highest goals for the new program, guided by his conviction that architecture was the “mother of all the arts.” Temple Architecture were taught to design spaces that elevated the experiences of life’s activities, whether for a chapel for a marriage ceremony, or for a mere intimate nook for two people to enjoy breakfast, or to the urban scale of crowds milling. He truly believed that architecture enriched the meaning of life.
John meshed these exalted goals with Temple’s “Acres of Diamonds” philosophy. While they designed fine art, students were taught that an all-important social goal of architecture is to make life better for all. Not wanting to be located anywhere other than North Philadelphia, students were asked to look out of their high studio windows, acknowledging that to create the very best urban environments was a necessity for all. John truly believed that the city of Philadelphia was our canvas. The goal of architecture, he believed, was to consider the needs of residents, respect their opinions, and pull in their innate and diverse talents and, then as the architect to function as a conductor of an orchestra, guiding the process to make places of wonder. The Temple Architecture graduate was taught that architecture is a team process.
John also had the talent to draw in and support young teaching talent. John J. Pron was one such Temple faculty member. “Through a recommendation by a University of Pennsylvania, Professor Norman Rice, John invited me to teach a studio, covering for a sick faculty member, for perhaps two or three weeks. I stayed over 40 years, and through John’s attentive nurturing, he gave me an academic career that resulted in a long award-winning career at Temple. I was one of many--making it an exciting, dynamic place to teach in those years. Temple Architecture was an incubator for many young architects, fulltime and adjuncts, who were invited to teach both lectures and studios and given great freedom to develop their own courses. Many of those teachers, teaching in schools nationally and overseas, are, in turn, mentoring a second generation of practicing architects and architecture teachers."
John was an avid traveler, sketching and observing buildings, both old and new. He and his wife and architectural partner, Brigitte L. Knowles, established a traveling scholarship at Temple, the John Christopher Knowles Travel Fellowship, for students in their final academic year in the professional architectural program to travel to a place of their choice, thus supporting their final design thesis.
John and Brigitte established an architectural atelier, BJC Knowles. Their work focused on the philosophy that architecture has the potential to be a curative power through the embodiment of all the senses. John and Brigitte’s work has been published internationally. For many years, John was a vestry member at Christ Church in Philadelphia, and his design for the entrance glass doors grace the church.
In retirement, John focused on his paintings, which were inspired by his many travel sketches. His initial training, prior to studying architecture, was in the fine arts in Nottingham, England. As a young man, he played soccer avidly and in later life that passion translated into many hours of watching international soccer matches. He loved his house in northern Maine, a building designed and built by him and his wife. The house has been published internationally.
John is survived by his wife, Brigitte and his son, Christopher, both of whom will sorely miss his gregarious spirit. His sister in England, Christine Ingram, will miss him greatly as well. Funeral services are private.
Gifts in memory of John Christopher Knowles may be sent to Temple University, John Christopher Knowles Travel Fellowship, Institutional Advancement, P.O. Box 827651, Philadelphia, PA 19182, or made online at giving.temple.edu/support.