BORN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, DECEMBER 29, 1925. DIED LONDON, OCTOBER 19, 2015, AGED 89
THE SOUTH African architect Issy Benjamin was one of the last surviving members of a group who narrowly escaped imprisonment by the apartheid regime. He left South Africa in 1964 after a tip-off that the police were about to take him into custody for his clandestine antiracist activities. He loved telling a story about transporting a wanted Pan-African Congress activist across the border to “safety” only to find himself in lioninfested terrain.The fearless activist said: “Don’t worry, I know that lion.”
From LBH Architects, his Hampstead office, he and another South African, Ted Levy, designed a prodigious number of hotels, housing projects and apartments in the UK and on the Continent as well as the development of the grounds of Witanhurst, in Highgate, with fellow anti-apartheid campaigner Ike Horvitch. One of the buildings Benjamin and Levy designed is 100 Avenue Road, Swiss Cottage, recently at the centre of heated discussion over its proposed demolition to make way for a 24-storey tower block.
In an interview with the Camden New Journal Benjamin said developers Essential Living ignored the history of the site. “It would be fine if
Issy Benjamin: environmentalist’s sense of place and artist’s eye for form 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 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 Tou- quet, 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, particularly of steam trains. When he was old enough to show his portfolio to art schools the examining officials did not believe they were from real life, but thought he had copied photographs from magazines.
His family decided he ought to study architecture. His first major projects were in 1955 with Derek Crofton, with whom he had formed Crofton and Benjamin Architects. They included Crescent Gardens in Pitermaritzburg, and iconic buildings in Durban. Their work featured in post-war beach-front developments with names like Las Vegas Marine Parade, and the Riviera Hotel, Victoria Embankment. 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 international architectural photographer Dennis Guichard.
Most recently he partnered Alistair Gould and his stepson Jeremy Linden at award-winning Helionix Associates, who described him as a visionary — whose prolific work ranged from small-scale development projects to the design and development of complete communities, reflecting “an environmentalist’s sense of place, an artist’s eye for natural and built form, with an engineer’s practicality”. He explored radical, ecological design solutions both in architecture and other design fields.
Linden described his father as a “magnetic and inspiring man who entered the lives of his stepsons Andrew and Jeremy at the age of 10 and eight. Issy encouraged us to live life to the full as he imaginatively explored social connections, art, architecture, science and spirituality with an intuitive knowledge that all of his interests were integrated and encouraged us to do the same”.
In addition to being a karate brown belt, In his youth 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 Benjamin, Rabbi David 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 Benjamin’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, 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 is survived by sons Dan and Jo and stepsons Jeremy and Andrew Linden.