Professor Alan Robert Lipman 1925-2013: Architect | Anarchist | Academic | Teacher | Writer | Critic | Activist

On 27 January 2013, South African architect, Alan Lipman, passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg. He is survived by his wife of sixty-four years, Beata; children Jane and Peter; and grandchildren Martha, Caitlin and Joshua.


Lipman inspired generations of architects, locally and abroad, not only to appreciate the moral potential of architecture, but to question the status quo, rigorously and with integrity. As a student, he chanced upon the maxim “Resist much, obey little” by Walt Whitman, which informed both his thinking and his life.


Lipman was raised in Johannesburg and Vrede, and served in the South African Air Force during World War II. He then studied architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand with peers Wim Swann, Pancho Guedes and Monty Sack. Lectured by Carl Pinfold, Angus Stewart and Johnny Fassler, among others, he was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, as well as “less rigid modernists” like Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, and the work of George Bernard Shaw.


Lipman graduated in 1950 and worked in Durban and Johannesburg, often for Indian and African clients. First a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Lipman later joined the ANC and took part in militant anti-apartheid activities. He and Beata worked alongside Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in the Struggle – Lipman was instrumental in drafting the Freedom Charter in 1955, and Beata did the actual lettering of the original charter.


In 1963, in response to their political activities and socialist ideologies, the Lipman family was forced into political exile.


In Britain, Lipman worked for Ove Arup Associates and influential Modernist practice Fry, Drew, Drake & Lasdun. There he participated in a weekly ritual that he subsequently considered an essential part of an architect’s ongoing professional education. “At both those firms we would take Friday afternoon after lunch, all sit down and, in rotation, explain what we were working on to the whole office – and they were both big offices.


“We would be severely, deeply questioned. It was both terrifying and heartening. We discussed architecture and the world. We invited people to come and talk to us. So there was that awareness and alertness and sharing with colleagues.”


Lipman then took up a post at the University of Wales in Cardiff. While there, he linked his research on architecture to studies in sociology; and became involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Upon his retirement, after a distinguished career spanning two decades, Lipman was conferred the title Professor Emeritus.


In 1990, he and Beata were persuaded by long-time friend and ‘political father’, Walter Sisulu, to return to South Africa and the couple moved back to Johannesburg. Lipman resumed his teaching, writing and research, and collaborated on two major projects as well as a number of schools and clinics.


His architectural achievements over the last twenty years include a SAIA Award for Excellence for the Workers Library and Museum in Newtown in 1996, in association with Henry Paine; a SAIA Award for Excellence in 2004 for the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies at Somkhele in Kwa-Zulu Natal, with Steve Kinsler and Derek van Heerden of East Coast Architects; and a SAIA Medal of Distinction in 2004.


In recent years, Lipman has been resolutely critical of contemporary society and architecture. “I’m deeply, deeply offended by what passes for architecture in South Africa. Not only is this culture decadent, but the society is decadent around it. And, as far as I am concerned, architecture is an outward manifestation of social relations.”


Throughout the difficult experiences of a questioning and principled life, Lipman was sustained by the dictum ‘pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will’. In his book ‘On the outside looking in’ he commented, “Despite all that, I’ve been fortunate: all has not been gloom, exploitation. Upsetting as they have been, none of these experiences has overwhelmed me.”


Alan Lipman lived and worked with fervour, generosity and integrity. The world is a poorer place without his wisdom and humour; yet his memory will continue to inspire enthusiasm for architecture, commitment to truth, and respect for the human spirit.