Alan Lipman 1925-2013

On 27 January 2013, architect, teacher, writer and political activist Alan Lipman, passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg. He is survived by his wife Beata and his children Peter and Jane.

I was fortunate enough to have been taught by Alan at the Welsh School of Architecture, first as an undergraduate student and subsequently as a research student. Along with many others I was deeply inspired by his teaching, as students frequently noted, he was a man who made you think. Indeed he was the kind of teacher that opened up a new world of thoughts and ideas.

He was always passionate about architecture He took particular delight in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. He relished the forms of good architecture, qualities of space, light, organisation – the things all architects love. However, he also sought to advance the idea of architecture as an ethical practice, a practice which should promote social well being – the practice of architecture as a social art. His teaching was not just about architecture but the forces that bear upon its production. Architecture in all it’s formal, social and political complexity. This made him an exceptional teacher. 

Born in Johannesburg in 1925 Alan was trained at the University of Witwatersrand  – schooled in the precepts of the modern movement. I remember him saying to me on one occasion that all his academic work was in a very fundamental way a critique of modernism. His PhD thesis was a debunking of the pervasive idea of architectural determinism, a false premise (still deeply embedded in architectural thinking) predicated on the erroneous assumption that somehow buildings are active agents and people their passive recipients. For Alan, it was people that conferred meaning upon their environment and much of his research was an exploration of the ways in which they did.

Whilst critical of many of the orthodoxies of architectural thinking Alan still subscribed to the central tenets of modernism, in particular the central proposition of architecture as a social practice. The great promise of an architecture with emancipatory potential, an architecture for the wider good, lay at the heart of the modern movement. In many ways the origins of modernism and socialism are inextricably linked. Alan embraced both the ideals of modernism and socialism, his political activism formed another facet of his rich but highly unified worldview.

I recall one Saturday, in the early 80s, travelling down from Cardiff to Pembrokeshire in his car to join a CND protest, it’s a fair journey and he told me something more of his experiences in South Africa. He had been politically active in his opposition to apartheid, had joined the Communist Party in 1948 and left when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. He had then joined the ANC. He was actively involved in drafting the Freedom Charter in 1955 – the document, which was to become South Africa’s strategic compass towards democracy. The official version of the freedom Charter was beautifully hand written by his wife, Beata. By 1963 his political involvement forced him and his family into exile shortly before the Rivonia Treason Trial which led to the 27 year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Alan said that if he had not left he would have been implicated in the trial and also condemned.

He arrived in London in 1963 and worked for both Ove Arup Associates and Fry, Drew, Drake and Lasdun. He then moved to Wales to take up a lectureship at the Welsh School of Architecture. Here he would stay for 27 years, teaching, writing and developing a research unit entitled ‘human studies’; a rich blend of architecture sociology, psychology and cultural theory. As a young research student it was wonderful to learn within this context. A cycle of debate, collisions of ideas, and the wonderful seminars presided over by Alan. Also the splendid practice Alan had of writing articles together with research students, battling out the writing word by word sentence by sentence. He strove for craftsmanship in writing just as he had striven for craftsmanship in design. It was both an education and an inspiration.

After the seminars our small group of research students would retire to a local pub, the Old Arcade in Cardiff, and re-open the debate, in a somewhat less structured manner. Last summer a group of us re-convened, thirty years on. Alan had returned to South Africa in 1990, he had been asked to return by his friend Walter Sisulu (released from Robben Island in Oct 1989) to participate in the early days of the ANC rule. He and Beata were to join us, via Skype, at some point in the afternoon. We talked about the man who had made such a big impression on our lives, his engagement with the subjects that interested us, his great sense of humour, of the world of ideas he placed before us, his extraordinary life of political engagement. Late in the afternoon a lap top was placed on the table, and Alan and Beata appeared on the screen. The quality of the signal was not great, but we exchanged words and greetings. Alan’s broad smile and laughter sang out from the laptop.

This was the last time we saw him. Although with all good teachers you tend to see them a lot, and hear them a lot, even when they have departed. Words of wisdom remain embedded I know that there are a lot of other ex students out there who will have similar feelings for Alan. He made us think.

Paul Harries