The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Jack Lynn

by Elain Harwood

Jack Lynn was an architect with a powerful personality and a reputation based on a single building. It is a measure of the man that that building was Park Hill in Sheffield, designed with Ivor Smith. But Lynn was no modernist; instead the concept grew from a marriage of his native North Seaton in Northumberland, with its narrow rows of terraced houses and corner pubs, and the grandeur of Greek classicism.

Lynn was the youngest of eight children, born to an unemployed coal miner and raised mainly by his eldest sister in an impoverished but close community. This formed the foundation for his strongly-held belief that decent education, housing and health provision were basic human rights. He won a scholarship to King’s College in Newcastle (then part of Durham University), one of the great melting pots of ideas on architecture and planning in the 1940s. Lynn was an exact contemporary of Alison Smithson (then Alison Gill) and also knew Peter, although he was no admirer of either them or his tutor, W B Edwards. A greater influence was Donald Gibson, who visited Newcastle as an external examiner; he passed on his fee to the young student and later gave him a job with Coventry City Architects Department working on schools. First, however, he worked in Cambridge for the Regional Health Board, where he befriended an architectural student, Ivor Smith. Together, the two unsuccessfully designed a house for the lecturers with whom Lynn lodged.

Leaving Coventry in 1951, Lynn took a job with the Forestry Commission in Northumberland, remembered as ‘the best summer I ever had’. It was there that he studied Greek architecture and developed his ideas on housing, first realised in a scheme for the Golden Lane competition, drawn up with a friend from Newcastle, Gordon Ryder. The brief suggested that the site was to be the beginning of a larger development, so Lynn began with a cross, four blocks at right angles making a space in the middle for the little community building: a radial design and a radical one, although the slabs with their walkways of flats were not linked. Ryder later invited him to join his practice, but Lynn feared it would spoil their friendship and declined, instead recommending a Sheffield colleague, Ted Nicklin.

Smith, too, was working on housing, having transferred to the Architectural Association to complete his qualifications, and he persuaded Lynn to come to London and help. His thesis was on Rotherhithe, and their solution was an evolution of the Golden Lane scheme, facing the problems of turning ninety degree angles without losing continuity. Lynn introduced pubs, shops and laundries based on his memories of North Seaton, and the name ‘rows’ for the high-level walkways came from there.

It was a former colleague from Coventry, Edmund Tory, who suggested that they apply to Sheffield to work for Lewis Womersley, himself a rising star in housing and estate planning. Their condition was that they should be employed as a pair, which gave them more clout. Womersley produced a lumpy, hillside site at Norfolk Park, and – recognising that the rocky conditions meant that the foundations were good – they laid out blocks following the ridges. The scheme was admired by the treasurer, Isodore Lewis, who was concerned that Sheffield was losing valuable rate income as people moved outside the city. However, they were diverted to Park Hill when the Government changed its policy towards slum clearance schemes. With Womersley imparting a sense of urgency, Lynn and Smith did a scheme in six weeks flat, something unheard of in local government. This was zoned and organised in stages, so that people would have been moved in sections and not have to leave the area. But, although the council was appreciative of their speed, the politicians became involved and they had to begin again. Lynn wanted it more complex than anything had been before, based on his idea of music – ‘Park Hill was a bloody great fugue’, he claimed – citing the inspiration of Ninian Comper’s stylistic inclusiveness as well as Greek architecture. He specified finishes of Uxbridge brick as they gave reliable colours. A school was to be retained (though it was later rebuilt) and as many pubs as Lynn could get – four were eventually allowed.

When Womersley left Sheffield to open an architectural practice in Manchester, Lynn was persuaded to join him, but quickly became disenchanted. He and his wife Mari headed north with their two children, and in 1966 Lynn was appointed to advise on the expansion of the newly independent University of Newcastle. He established a practice with Donald Kendrick in 1968, working mainly on social and student housing and housing for disabled people, but also on churches, following his conversion to Roman Catholicism the same year. He retired to Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1988.

Jack Lynn, born 30 October 1926, died 15 October 2013