uploaded : Thursday 10th Dec 2015 at 15:07
by : Carol Gould
This video of Issy Benjamin has been produced by Helionix Architects
Obituary by Carol Gould
The South African architect Issy Benjamin, one of the last surviving group who narrowly escaped imprisonment by the apartheid regime, has died in London at 89. He left South Africa in 1964 after a tip-off that the police were about to take him into custody for his clandestine anti-racist activities. He loved telling a story about transporting a wanted Pan-African Congress activist across the border to ‘safety’ only to find himself in lion-infested terrain. But as one particularly ferocious-looking beast approached, the fearless activist said, ’Don’t worry, Benj, I know that lion.’
From his office at LBH Architects in Holly Bush Vale, Hampstead with another South African, Ted Levy, he designed a prodigious number of hotels, housing projects and apartments in the UK and continent as well as the development of the grounds of Witanhurst, in Highgate and Summit Lodge, opposite Whitestone Pond with fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Ike Horvitch. .One of the buildings Issy Benjamin and Ted Levy designed is 100 Avenue Road, Swiss Cottage, recently at the centre of heated discussion as it is due to be demolished to make way for a 24-storey tower block. In an interview with the Camden New Journal Benjamin said developers Essential Living ignore the history of the site. ‘It would be fine if they repainted the window frames red and black as they originally were. That building would sparkle,” he said. ‘Swiss Cottage had a nice atmosphere. There is the Basil Spence library and great architecture around. We wanted to build something that fitted in, and was not intimidating.We refined our plans over and over again until we had the balance right and made what is there today.We wanted to make it as elegant as possible.’
In the 1970s Benjamin designed the car, bus and lorry-free village of Prainha, Algarve. He became consultant to projects in France - Ville du Lac, Le Touquet, and in Malta, Cyprus, Holland, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Mallorca, Denmark, Japan, Antigua and Pakistan.
Born to Lithuanian parents Issy Benjamin showed an early interest in drawing, most particularly of steam trains. When he was old enough for his portfolio of work to be taken around to art schools the officials examining his work did not believe these were ‘from life’ but thought he had copied photographs from magazines. His family decided he ought to study architecture. His first major projects started life in 1955 with Derek Crofton, with whom he had formed Crofton and Benjamin Architects. They included Crescent Gardens in Pitermaritzburg, and many iconic buildings in Durban. Their work featured in post-war beachfront developments with names like Las Vegas Marine Parade; The Riviera Hotel Victoria Embankment and Silversands, Marine Parade. In 2011 Benjamin was honoured in Durban by the KwaZulu Natal Institute for Architecture’s Award of Service with a nationwide touring exhibition of his work by the eminent international architectural photographer Dennis Guichard.
Most recently he partnered Alistair Gould and Jeremy Linden at award-winning Helionix Associates, who write of him as a visionary:
‘Issy was an architect whose prolific work covered a broad span of projects, from small-scale development projects to the design and development of complete communities, encompassing the skills of interior design, landscape architecture and town planning. His approach reflected a rare mix of an environmentalist’s ‘sense of place’, an artist’s eye for natural and built form with an engineer’s practicality when assessing structural and economic viability. He explored ‘outside the box’ radical ecological design solutions both in architecture and other design fields. ‘ Linden, his stepson, writes: ‘Issy was a magnetic & inspiring man who entered the lives of his stepsons Andrew & Jeremy at the age of 10 & 8. Issy encouraged us to live life to the full as he imaginatively explored social connections, art, architecture, science & spirituality with an intuitive knowledge that all of his interests were integrated & encouraged us to do the same. A life well lived.’
In addition to being a karate brown belt, in his youth Issy Benjamin played rugby and loved telling the story of being the only Jewish player in a match in South Africa; the crowd was shouting ‘Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!’ The referee stopped the match and instructed the crowd to stop the abuse. When play resumed they yelled ‘Injure the Jew! Injure the Jew!’ With Issy, Rabbi David J Goldberg and Rex Bloomstein I developed a film project, ‘A Twig from the Cherry Orchard,’ about their visit to Russian Jewish communities and was staggered by Issy’s feel for the theatre and film genre. He later told me he had been a stage manager as a young man in South Africa, and had he not pursued architecture would have chosen a life in the theatre. He wrote a musical, ‘ Destiny’ combining Kabbalah, Spanish Sephardi culture and South African imagery.
A highly respected scholar of Kabbalah, he lectured and led international tours often alongside Warren Kenton, (Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi) who told me ‘Issy was in a class of his own.’
He had a wide circle of friends and associates including the Czech playwright Benjamin Kuras, who told me his book title, ‘As Golems Go,‘ was devised by Issy. He considered ‘Grand Unification of a 2 Photon Universe’ by long-time associate Harold Akrongold a work of major importance. Issy attended my Saturday Night Soirees for many years and was loved by my circle -- men and women of all ages and professions. Another asssociate, Aubrey Jacobus, has written ‘I thought he was almost indestructible To have fallen to cancer is terrible especially for one who didn’t smoke
and was very health conscious.’
Issy Benjamin, born Johannesburg, South Africa December 29, 1925; died London 19 October 2015. He was a member of West Central Liberal Synagogue and is survived by sons Dan and Jo and stepsons Jeremy and Andrew Linden.
Here are some wonderful memories of the work and times of South African-born architect Issy Benjamin, who partnered with Derek Crofton, Ted Levy and most recently Helionix in the UK.