Clive Michael Chipkin. Picture: Sunday Times/James Oatway
Clive Michael Chipkin. Picture: Sunday Times/James Oatway

On January 10 the City of Gold lost one of its most devoted sons, Clive Chipkin. He was 91.

Chipkin’s books Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880s to 1960s (David Philip, Cape Town, 1993) and Johannesburg Transition: Architecture and Society from 1950 (STE Publishers, 2009) are seminal works in and of the Joburg story. For anyone wanting to learn about the architectural history, they are a bible. Any decent Joburg enthusiast counts, and indeed boasts of, having them in their libraries.

A Yeoville start

Chipkin was born on March 21 1929 in a semi-detached house in Yeoville-Bellevue. The year of his birth marked the Wall Street Crash preceding the Great Depression. Throughout his life he carried an awareness of the impact of hardship on people’s lives. This explained his desire for a more equitable society.

After World War 2 Chipkin studied architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He took time to figure out what architecture was and, more importantly, how it related to the wider world. He looked for connections in disparate ideas and grew through asking unorthodox questions.

On completing his studies, he worked at Wayburne & Wayburne where he befriended anti-apartheid activist Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein, who would be instrumental in drafting the Freedom Charter. Chipkin remembered 1955 as the year of the Congress of the People in Kliptown; a formative influence in his life. He recalled the ablution block which he designed for the event as his finest contribution to Joburg’s architectural dialogue. He both rejected and contested apartheid, never participating in government work during that era and was a founding member of the group Architects Against Apartheid in 1986.

Later, in his own practice, he handled everything from residential and commercial buildings to major development programmes and historical projects. His son Ivor described his father as a "Fifties man", full of hopes for the remaking of the post-war world. He retained that attitude of optimism and hope for good changes in society at large and in the remaking of his city through architecture.

An author and scholar

Chipkin began writing about architecture in the 1950s, publishing substantial essays in architecture as well as commentaries for Joburg newspapers. His wife Valerie was his assistant in writing and research and in 2015 he donated this research, The Valerie Chipkin Archives, to Wits. During his latter years he held a visiting research fellowship at Wits’ School of Architecture & Planning. The university recognised his exceptional scholarship with an honorary PhD in 2013.

Johannesburg Style achieved iconic status soon after its publication. The Joburg volumes provide an understanding of the making and shaping of the city and its cultural, social and historical underpinnings. They show a remarkable breadth of knowledge and the capacity to pose difficult questions about the roots of design and the shaping of architectural styles and fashions. Chipkin drew on a diverse array of sources across architecture, politics, economics, sociology and history to explain the development of the city through 120 years. No other work on the subject of Joburg architecture comes close to matching Chipkin’s reach across so many disciplines.

His work generated a great deal of interest and his readiness to participate in public debate about architecture and his ability to educate the broader public has strengthened a critical appreciation of heritage.

It was a joy to venture on jaunts around the city with Chipkin. We walked his Yeoville, explored the Obel buildings and tracked down Le Roith’s apartment blocks.

When the Grand Station Hotel was lost to fire, we ventured out to inspect the damage. The blackened shell was no longer grand, but Chipkin peeled back the layers of history. He related the parallels between Jeppe Station (across the road) and the London underground of the 1930s and the work of Charles Holden. He drew on his rich personal experience and his take on the city and its evolution.

At the time of his passing Chipkin had completed the final volume in his Joburg trilogy, drawing together the many reflective threads of a lifetime as an architect and scholar. This new book is beautifully visual; a pictorial record drawn from his impressive archive. Publication is expected later this year.

Chipkin was always generous in sharing knowledge and sparkled with curiosity and lively conversation. He was the most wonderful friend — compassionate, kind, funny, a great conversationalist. I feel privileged to have been mentored by him and to have enjoyed his friendship. He believed in the value of education as the driver of change and was a generous mentor to generations of practising architects. In the short time since his death, tributes have poured in from celebrated local architects who worked with or were encouraged by Chipkin. They included Fanuel Motsepe, Sarah Calburn, Henry Paine, Heather Dodd, Marcus Holmes, Brendan Hart, Yasmin Mayat, Hannah le Roux and Brian McKechnie, among others.

Chipkin is survived by his children Peter, Lesley and Ivor and their spouses, his grandchildren and his close companion Marcia Leveson.

*Munro is an honorary associate professor in the School of Architecture & Planning at Wits and chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

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