ISSY Benjamin was driving along a dusty track through the dark South African night in a national park that bordered Botswana.
In the passenger seat was a man who was a game warden but was also a secret political activist, working for the anti-apartheid Pan African Congress. The warden had been warned he was on a police list and was in serious danger. Issy was driving him to relative safety across the border through the national park he had worked in.
“It was three in the morning,” recalls Issy, 88. “I opened the door so he could get out, and we heard the most tremendous roar. I said to him: ‘That’s a lion. You’d better sit tight.’ He had no gun, and a long walk through the bush to get across the border.”
The activist undid the window and listened carefully.
“He heard the roar again, and turned to me as he got out. He said: ‘Don’t worry, Issy, I know that lion.’ And with that he strode boldly in to the scrub and off to freedom.”
Issy is full of such memories of a life in apartheid South Africa, where throughout the 1950s he worked not only as an architect but became involved in clandestine political work to fight the racist government.
In 1964, he too would have to leave in secret, after being told the police were going to arrest him. He settled in Hampstead, and one of the buildings he designed with his partner Ted Levy is 100 Avenue Road, Swiss Cottage (pictured below), currently at risk of being demolished and replaced with a 24-storey tower.
He says his building needs little more than a lick of paint to restore it to its original condition.
The council’s planning department was flooded with hundreds of objections to the replacement scheme (pictured below), but the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has praised the new designs, while architects working for developers Essential Living have stated the current building has no Objectors say this ignores the history of the site.
“It would be fine if they repainted the windows frames red and black as they originally were. That building would sparkle,” Issy says.
The son of Jewish immigrants who had moved from Lithuania, Issy showed a real aptitude for drawing as a child and decided he wanted to become a commercial artist.
“I was passionate about steam trains,” he says. “I could draw them with my eyes shut, with every detail, every piston, crank, nut and bolt.
“I took my portfolio around to agencies and each agency did not believe I had drawn them from my mind – they thought I must have copied them. I insisted I had done them and they just thought I was lying.”
A family conference was called and his elders discussed his future.
“They said: ‘Issy likes drawing. He’ll be an architect,’” he recalls.
While the period of design trends would have seen émigrés who had come from a Bauhaus background influence architectural courses, Issy remembers an atmosphere at Leitz University that included a rejection of the excesses of Modernism.
“We liked more original architecture,” he says.
“We were interested in the classicists, and Frank Lloyd Wright – stuff that was not just rectangular and boxy. I liked buildings to be curved and cultured.”
In a pre-computer design age, his ability to sketch as an artist stood him in good stead.
“I loved the physical drawing,” he says. “The feel and flow of a line of a pencil on paper – the sensualness of it. You simply can’t design boxes with a soft pencil.”
He and his partner Ted Levy designed many buildings in Camden from their offices in Holly Bush Vale, and won the Avenue Road commission in the early 1980s.
“Swiss Cottage had a nice atmosphere,” he says. “There is the Basil Spence library and great architecture around. We wanted to build something that fitted in, and was not intimidating.”
He recalls the design process, and how the brief meant they first experimented with a tower, and then laid it on one side.
“We refined our plans over and over again until we had the balance right and made what is there today,” he said.
“We wanted to make it as elegant as possible.”
Issy believes that architectural vogues have much to do with simple economics, rather than what looks pleasing or is nice to live and work in.
“There was a capitalist trap the Bauhaus movement fell into,” he says. “They would tell developers: ‘You don’t need cornices or mouldings’ and the developer would think – ‘Wow, I can save money on this’. It wasn’t about aesthetics, but they pretended it was.”
The same has happened in contemporary architecture in London.
“You see all this sheet glass and steel and think it is a design idea,” says Issy. “The fact is sheets of glass increases the rentable area. It needs less room, and then it becomes an aesthetic and architects fall for this.”