John Christopher Knowles, 79, of Philadelphia and Winter Harbor, Maine, the founding father of Temple University's architecture program, died Sunday, March 18, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital of heart failure due to complications from the flu.

John Christopher Knowles
Courtesy of the family
John Christopher Knowles

In the 1960s, Professor Knowles came to America from Nottingham, England. His first stop was Harvard University, but he transferred from Harvard to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with the noted architect Louis I. Kahn. Kahn soon became his friend and mentor.

At Kahn's recommendation, and with the support of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Professor Knowles set about creating an academic program at Temple for would-be architects. The program, which he chaired, is now the architecture department at Temple's Tyler School of Art.

Drexel University and Penn were the only schools offering architecture degrees in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, and the Temple program was seen by local architects as a way to expand the scope of the profession.

Starting in 1971, Professor Knowles transformed architectural technology classes, which had been part of the Temple College of Engineering curriculum, into a four-year academic degree and a fully accredited five-year bachelor of architecture professional degree.

He oversaw the architecture program's first move from an office building on North Broad Street into its own classroom and studio spaces at 12th and Norris Streets. The program is now in a building near 12th and Diamond Streets.

Professor Knowles considered architecture to be the "mother of all the arts," said his wife, Brigitte L. Knowles, senior associate dean emeritus at Tyler. "By harnessing his personality, professionalism and close acquaintance with some of the most important teachers and practitioners of the mid-20th century, he set the very highest goals for the new program."

Professor Knowles thought students should be taught to design spaces for the betterment of occupants, whether for a couple getting married in a chapel, two people starting their day in a breakfast nook, or crowds milling in a public building. "He truly believed that architecture enriched the meaning of life," said his wife.

He emphasized that architecture was a team process, and that the clients came first, especially in diverse neighborhoods. "He believed that the goal of architecture 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 to make places of wonder," his wife said.

Professor Knowles was skilled at attracting talented teachers to the program and retaining them, according to John James Pron, a fellow faculty member who retired from teaching architectural history in 2013.

"John invited me to teach a studio, covering for a sick faculty member, for perhaps two or three weeks," Pron said. "I stayed over 40 years, and through John's attentive nurturing, he gave me a long, award-winning career at Temple.

"Temple Architecture was an incubator for many young architects, who were invited to teach lectures and studios, and given great freedom to develop their own courses," Pron said. "Many of those, teaching in schools nationally and overseas, are in turn mentoring a second generation of practicing architects and architecture teachers."

Professor Knowles took his interest in architecture beyond the classroom. He loved to travel, and as he toured, he sketched new and old buildings. He and his wife established a traveling scholarship at Temple University, the John Christopher Knowles Travel Fellowship. The fund allows students in their last academic year to travel for research purposes. The research must support their final design thesis.

In the mid-1970s, the couple designed alterations and renovations to a house in the 500 block of Spruce Street in Center City. The design, done in collaboration with former partner Roy Vollmer, won an award from the AIA.

Professor Knowles and his wife, also an architect, founded a design studio, BJC Knowles,  at 419 S. Third St. An example of the firm's work are the glass entrance doors to Christ Church. The doors were designed by Professor Knowles, a longtime church vestry member.

After retiring in the mid-1990s, Professor Knowles did paintings, which were based on his travel sketches.

As a young man, he played soccer, and later became an avid spectator of the sport. He enjoyed the vacation house in Maine that he and his wife designed and built.

In addition to his wife, Professor Knowles is survived by a son, Christopher, and a sister.

Funeral services will be private.

Donations may be made to Temple University, John Christopher Knowles Travel Fellowship, Institutional Advancement, Box 827651, Philadelphia, Pa. 19182, or via giving.temple.edu/support.