Landscape architect John Morrison says a generation of landscape architects in Northern Ireland owe a deep debt of gratitude to a group of trailblazers and mavericks…
Before the 1970s the incomparable Robert Carson kept the small flickering flame of landscape architecture alight in Northern Ireland. The creation of the new town of Craigavon followed by the establishment of landscape groups within the reformed Department of the Environment and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive represents Ground Zero for landscape design. To run the Landscape Section in DOE, the powers-that-be were wise enough, or crazy enough, to hire a unique triumvirate of pioneers: Peter Deihl, Brian Woods and the inimitable Jack Dunn.
Jack’s journey into landscape architecture had been unusual to say the least. From the streets of Liverpool he joined the Fleet Air Arm shortly after the war. Having realised that flying wasn’t for him, he joined the forestry service. There he discovered landscape design and qualified externally, while struggling to bring up a young family. It was tough but Jack was no stranger to hard times. When he arrived at the Northern Ireland DOE he was placed in control of an area that included the city of Belfast. His job was virtually impossible – to create a base for the profession in an atmosphere resistant to it, or at best, mystified by it, and in a country torn apart by civil and political chaos.
Jack sought to be persuasive rather than gung-ho, to lead by example not by bluster or rhetoric and to be firmly pragmatic about what was possible. He preferred to bring people along with him rather than threaten or throw tantrums in despair. Though it may not have seemed so at the time this tactic largely worked as the influence of the profession slowly grew.
There was a daily excitement of battle with planners, engineers and architects who were often grumpy, defensive and slow to recognise the capacity of landscape design to improve the environment and society in general. Jack led from the front in the boardrooms, on site or in his eloquent letters to authority figures reminding them of their duty to do the right thing. He was disappointed and hurt many times by others failing to live up to his standards but he never became downhearted or angry.
There was just enough scouse in Jack to make him mistrustful of authority, and sceptical of those who sought power. He never liked bosses and despite his well-ordered life he was really an anarchist at heart. If this quality didn’t already exist in those who worked for him it soon rubbed off on them. I was one of them and he greatly influenced the way I and others would deal with those who would tell us how to think.
Ironically Jack was my boss during this period, my first real boss, and to work with him was to witness his great humanity, kindness and sense of humour. Only later when there were other challenges, other bosses, and other colleagues did I realise that this was most definitely not the norm. He always had a fatherly arm-over-the-shoulder advice for those of my generation who wanted to change the world in double quick time. He knew it would be a bit harder and take a little longer.
Jack had an almost mystical belief in the essential goodness of trees. Maybe this came from his time in the Forestry Service in the sixties. When planners and administrators agonised for months or years over finding a use for derelict sites, Jack would always advise that while they were hanging about making up their minds, why not plant the site out with trees? What harm would come of it? The worst that could happen is you would have a maturing urban forest. This struck me then as it does now as wise counsel. These were the sorts of day-to-day, seat of the pants, decisions he had to make, working in a broken city. The vitality of Belfast today is due to many things and many people, but the Jack Dunns of this world who were able to see through the mayhem and to believe in the ultimate goodness of things kept many of us going through dark times.
Jack was forced to retire from the DOE at the ridiculously early age of sixty and he was very unhappy to leave. He felt he still had a lot to contribute and he was right. But those were the rules at the time. He moved to Southport to be closer to his family. But strange as it may seem to some, he genuinely missed the ugly, vibrant, hilarious city of Belfast and many there missed him deeply too. He never ever forgot his friends. His letters and phone calls from Southport were always peppered with little touches of his gentle faith and his irrepressible humour. He saw it as an act of honour to leave on a comic note even in the later years when he was badly troubled with illness and age.
Jack Dunn was born in Liverpool in 1926 and died in Southport in June 2010 He leaves behind Peggy, his wife of 56 years, son Peter and daughters Mary and Joanne, 8 grandchildren and a great legacy of landscape achievements, deep friendships and fond memories. Jack was one of those rarities of the age we live in, a deeply spiritual, thoroughly noble, true gentleman. They didn’t use a mould, they broke it before they made Jack Dunn.
By Jim Morrison, landscape architect.