Katherine Shonfield

Writer and teacher in the history and theory of architecture who combined passionate beliefs with a sense of the ridiculous
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Katherine Penelope Shonfield, architect, writer and teacher: born London 22 August 1954; married 2001 Julian Vaughan Williams (one son); died London 2 September 2003.

Katherine Shonfield was an inspirational teacher in the history and theory of architecture and, both in her teaching and her journalism, as a regular columnist for Building Design and the Architect's Journal, she outlined her ideas in clear, jargon-free prose. Her social awareness made her sensitive to implications others missed.

In one of her columns, she pointed out that the artist's impression distributed as publicity material for Richard Rogers's proposed roof over the South Bank Centre assumed the vantage-point of a suite at the Savoy hotel. Rogers was apparently not pleased.

Shonfield insisted on art as a touchstone of truth, and made use of both literature and film as weapons of architectural criticism. Her book Walls Have Feelings (2000), subtitled "Architecture, Film and the City", showed how insights derived from film could illuminate her subject, deciphering the codes of architectural language just as her schoolfriend Judith Williamson had earlier deciphered the language of advertising in Decoding Advertisements (1978).

She also dabbled in installation art, and in a work called Dirt is Matter Out of Place (1991) once filled a public lavatory in Spitalfields with feathers.

A straight-backed beauty, with dark hair, flashing eyes and a ready smile, Katherine Shonfield was immediately noticeable in any gathering. Her personality was equally striking. She loved talk, and had something to say on almost every topic. She managed to combine passionate beliefs with a strong sense of the ridiculous, so that vehe- ment argument was often resolved in laughter.

There was not a shred of pomposity about her. Her voice, though never mellifluous, was wonderfully expressive; she delighted in the rich variety and sensual power of language, often emphasising each syllable of a word to comic effect. A skilful mimic, she enjoyed innuendo, and among the influences detectable in her unique form of speech was that of Kenneth Williams in full flight. She was fascinated by sex, sometimes outrageously so. She loved dancing, and walking. She was also awesomely untidy.

Born in London in 1954, she was particularly close to her father, the economist Sir Andrew Shonfield, author of the seminal Modern Capitalism (1965). The son of a rabbi, of Hungarian ancestry, he was a scholarship boy whose adult speech betrayed traces of his modest Highbury childhood. As a young man Andrew rebelled against his background, anglicising his name on the outbreak of the Second World War and remaining wary of Jewish ritual thereafter. He could seem intimidating to those less intellectually rigorous, but he was a witty conversationalist who leavened his talk with irreverent caricatures and comic set-pieces.

Katherine's mother, Zuzanna, was born a Przeworska, into a wealthy family of assimilated Polish Jews, who had arrived in England in the 1930s. Like Andrew, Zuzanna was intellectually minded, with a concern for social issues which her daughter inherited: a quality exhibited in her book The Precariously Privileged (1987), based on a study of a young woman's diaries in 19th-century London.

Keeping your end up in such company - Katherine's older brother, David, was another cerebral member of this gifted family - would never be easy, yet Katherine was not overawed. "Let me speak," she would squeal. At her funeral, her cousin Victor recalled a typical occasion when mother and daughter began talking simultaneously, both gradually speaking louder and louder so as to drown out the sound of the other, and each reluctant to give way.

Visiting the Shonfields' elegant Chelsea house in the late 1960s one had the immediate impression of a cultivated household, where artists and writers mixed with journalists and ministers, and the incessant conversation ranged from music to Marxism. Once, while she was quite little, Katherine looked down from an upstairs landing to see most of the Labour Shadow Cabinet arrive for dinner.

When she was older, she and her friends were often encouraged to join the adults gathered around the dining-room table. It was an exhilarating if somewhat daunting experience. Katherine was an adornment to these gatherings, encouraged to shine by her proud father.

The teenage Katherine was sensitive to social injustice and embarrassed by privilege. In due course she followed her brother David and several of her schoolfriends into the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers' Party). She joined the pickets at the Upper Clyde Shipyard, and barracked the Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, Horace Cutler. Later her political commitment diminished, but her instincts remained radical throughout and she never had much respect for authority in any form.

For all their sophistication, there was an austere, almost puritanical side to the Shonfields, then not unusual among the high-minded, left-leaning intelligentsia. For many years they had no car, and, though they possessed a small black-and-white television, Katherine and her brother were forbidden to watch ITV. After she left home a reaction set in, and she watched trashy television omnivorously, trying never to miss an episode of Crossroads. Throughout her life she retained a taste for low as well as high culture, which she was able to exploit later as an architectural theorist.

At St Paul's Girls School she was not particularly distinguished academically. Nevertheless it was a surprise to her friends when she decided not to go to university, opting instead to study sociology at what was then Kingston Polytechnic. This led to a job as a planning officer in Kensington and Chelsea. But her intellectual and aesthetic interests remained unfulfilled, and she peered enviously over the shoulder of her flatmate, then an architectural student, as he worked at his drawing board. Perhaps architecture was in the blood: Zuzanna had always been interested in the social implications of buildings, and several members of her family had become architects.

But Katherine held back, strangely hesitant. Eventually a sympathetic friend invited Katherine - now known as Kath - to Central London Polytechnic on the pretext of lunch, then marched her into the admissions office and announced to the secretary that her unsuspecting guest would be applying to study architecture.

Between her degree course and her diploma, Katherine Shonfield studied briefly at Cambridge (which she disliked intensely), and, after qualifying in 1985, she began teaching at South Bank Polytechnic (later South Bank University). She also taught at Kingston Polytechnic and the Polytechnic of Central London, and the Architectural Association.

Though she wore her learning lightly, she was well-read, with a particular affection for 19th-century English novels. It is appropriate that the great social critic Charles Dickens should have been one of her favourite writers. If this makes her sound earnest, that is a misapprehension, for another of her favourites was P.G. Wodehouse. Her last work was a Wodehouse spoof on living with cancer.

Her relationship to her Jewishness was problematic. Both her parents were atheists. As a teenager she was baptised and confirmed into the Anglican Church and this religious allegiance reasserted itself in the last year or so of her life.

Shonfield had many love affairs, not all of them satisfactory by any means, and she sought an answer to her difficulties in psychoanalysis; but it is heartening to recall that she found lasting happiness in what turned out to be the final decade of her life with another architect, Julian Vaughan Williams. These two produced a beloved son, Roman, six years old at the time of her cruelly premature death.

Though her last few years were dominated by the struggle against the disease that eventually killed her, her spirit remained undiminished, and she continued to show a lively interest in others right up to the end.

Adam Sisman