Issy Ben­jamin

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CAROL GOULD


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.

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