Newsflash: 158
Date: 15 December 2016
 

Dear Members

It is with sadness that we announce the passing of Julian Elliott and send condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. Julian will be remembered with fondness and reverence.

Kind Regards

Obert Chakarisa
Chief Executive Officer, The South African Institute of Architects


Julian Elliott Obituary

27.08.1928 - 05.12.2015

When the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) called me and asked me for an obituary of my father I wondered how I should write it.

I remembered what Frank Lloyd Wright’s son said of his father “ My father who art on earth.” Then I recalled how Roelof Uytenbogaardt, when accepting the Institutes Gold Medal, wished that upon his death he and Bernini would be sitting on a bench in heaven discussing architecture. I hope that Julian will now join them and that le Corbusier is with them too, what a discussion that would be.

After graduating at UCT Julian had hoped to work for Corbu and was unlucky not to have gotten a job at his Paris studio. Instead he worked for Frederick Gibberd in London, from there he and Helene embarked upon the great European architectural tour together with Mike and Ann Munnik.

Fellow graduate from UCT architecture school, Philipe Charbonnier invited him to work with him on projects in Elizabethville in the then Belgian Congo. There he designed the Bocskay flats in 1956. From there he and Helene crossed over to Northern Rhodesia and settled in Ndola before the civil war broke out. Phillipe’s family had some work there for them including a filling station - Border Motors in Kabwe.

While in Ndola, Julian designed some very fine houses which were done within the framework of his idea of an African space, among these are the Ataala and the Pilcher houses.

He talked fondly of his experience with the Dominican fathers for whom he designed the cathedral in Kasama, a remote area in Zambia.

He was appointed as the lead architect of the new University of Zambia in Lusaka after the country became independent in 1964. The university buildings were conceived in a style that has since become known as “African Modernism”, and was recently documented in an exhibition of that title shown in the UK and in Germany.

It was one of Julian’s talents that he was able to collaborate with others and he did so on the university inviting Mike Munnik, Dirk Visser, Ron Kirby, Dave Jack and Neil Grobbelaar amongst others to help realise the university for the newly independent African country. It was at this time that his passion for universities began.

In 1969 Julian, Helene and family moved to Cape Town where he took on the post of the director of the planning unit at the University of Cape Town and was charged with overseeing all future development on the campus whilst keeping the Baker Soloman legacy alive.

He was able to travel far and wide visiting universities throughout the world to build up reference material to help him carry out his task. I remember he was often away and would send us presents from exotic places like Kraków, Pavia, Prague and Salamanca. He was proud to be in Europe and in NewYork in the late sixties and I remember him telling us that he went to see the play ‘Hair” and that the actors were nude on stage! At this time he collected a fantastic amount of materials on universities both old and new. He especially loved Cambridge and Oxford and went to Cambridge in 1984 to research material for his book “Universitas” which would eventually be finished in 2010 and would result in him being awarded a Phd. from the University of Cape Town.

Buildings at UCT were mostly planned by Julian and realised in collaboration with his architect friends. One I particularly like is the Leslie building which he designed with Mike Munnik. It was in the form of a new type of university building, a recombinant typology which was more than just a faculty and included lecture theatres, admin space and a students’ union.

It is joked that Julian was responsible for taking UCT downhill which he did when the Woolsack Residences (with John Williams), the Kramer (originally Education) building (with Revel Fox) and Africa house (with Ivan Jonker) were realised. These within a master plan which united the upper campus with the university buildings around the Bremner building via a series of landscaped terraces, this became known as the middle campus. He also arranged most of the libraries on the upper campus together in the form of what he called the linear library. Assisting him at the planning unit was a talented team that included Neil Grobbelaar, Angela Gilbert, Romana Longrigg and Anne van der Riet.

Julian also gave a series of lectures during this time and I remember attending one and seeing him sipping from a hip flask before starting and him telling me that it was Vodka and that it would help calm his nerves and that no one would smell Vodka, good advice to a young son.

Julian loved libraries and after designing the one at the University of Zambia he got another chance to do one at UWC with Mike Munnik. This is a very fine building - the recipient of the SA Institute of Architects Award of Distinction - which helped to establish the fine campus square that exits today completing the space started with contributions from Jack Barnett amongst others.

Julian and Ron Kirby won a competition for the Life Sciences building at Wits University in the mid 70’s. At this time he worked together with Hans Hallen on the Mangosuthu College of Technology in Durban, another example of his ability to collaborate with other architects.

Later on he designed the glass house at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden which was realised with the help of MLH Architects. The Catholic Church on Pryce Drive in Constantia was done with John Williams.

Growing up in the environments that Julian and Helene created, Mary and I could not help becoming creatives ourselves. I remember Julian saying that I was born with a Rotring in my mouth! They bought a boarding house in Ndola which was converted into a third office and two thirds house. The house was a veritable zoo with a monkey, called Django, african parrots, two tortoise and a boxer called Duke.

Next door I witnessed the architect’s life which looked like a lot of fun with hard work and hard play, deck quoits and beer after work. Helene helped make the models which were of balsawood and painted white with seven layers of paint, each one sanded down and polished when dry. I grew up in a world of art and books and music. Julian said to me that art was the most important thing in life.

After we moved to Cape Town Helene took up pottery. She not only produced a volume of work over the years slowly filling up the house in Newlands that Julian built in 1975, but introduced a host of many to learn the art of pottery. The process of building the house and living in it formed a strong impression on me and I often refer to it as kind of spatial laboratory.

My parents created a paradise on earth. A lot of joy flowed through the home and I have fond memories of the events and of the characters that Julian and Helene hosted over the years. Many students have visited the house and Julian must have been very proud to have achieved all he did in his life and to be able to live out his years in such an environment.

Our family toured Spain together in 1978 - hosted by Julian’s dear and generous friend Aubrey David. I was mightily impressed with the Moorish Architecture, so much so that I went to live and work in Spain after graduating.

Julian told me fantastic tales of Temples in Kyoto, Bazaars, Madrassas and Mosques in Iran and of buildings that moved him to tears. He taught me that there was an Other World, not only the science obsessed one in which we live. We frequently holidayed at Arniston which is a kind of architects colony, Julian described it as an ‘aggravation of architects”.

One of Julian’s proudest moments was when he received an honorary doctorate from Mamphela Ramphela, then chancellor at UCT. He told me that she asked him to do some alterations to her house in Bishopscourt which he did gratis. She then asked him what she could give him for his efforts and he replied that in his culture a case of whisky was the norm, to which she replied that in her culture the carcass of a cow was the norm.

Julian’s work was within what has been called the ‘other tradition of modern architecture’, he sought to make buildings and public space meaningful to people. He was very generous with his knowledge and shared it freely. His life was filled with inspiring travel, research, realisation and he liked nothing more than to sit down with friends and talk about it all over a glass or two of wine.

He was until recently consulting at the University of the Western Cape, helped by his friend Alex Robertson where his contribution was highly appreciated. I was amazed at his fine intellect even at the age of 87. He received the SAIA Gold Medal for Architects in 2006.

Julian has asked us to remember him and Helene at the sanctuary in his garden with close friends - the architect and the potter.

Paul Elliott

Paul Elliott

(Elliott Ngxola Architects)

 

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