CIfA Newsflash 20/2021 | OBITUARY: Louis Karol 1928 – 2021

LOUIS KAROL 1928 – 2021

It is not easy as an architect and historian to write an obituary for a man who was one’s beloved father and exceptional mentor, as well as the architect whose practice built much of Cape Town. Thus, I shall keep this obituary simple; no footnotes and no Goethe quotes.

My father, Louis Karol was born in 1928 in the small hamlet of Pikeliai, Lithuania. (or Pikeln in Yiddish as it would have known been to him) to an Orthodox Jewish family. His father, grandfather, and great-uncle were craftsmen, who worked primarily for the Prussian nobleman who lived in the Baltic states, and often spent months away from home working on the great estates.

He remained an Orthodox Jew his entire life, never working on the Sabbath and maintaining his Jewish values. As it was said in Cape Town in the 1970s, even Des Baker of Murray and Stewart could not get hold of him for 25 hours.

Louis Karol arrived in Cape Town on the S.S. Duilio on September 26, 1936, luckily before the Aliens Act curtailed that Jewish immigration came into force. The ship docked on Shabbat, and the family had to walk to their accommodation in the Gardens.

My father started school at age eight at Girls’ Central, speaking no English. But with his move the next year to Hope Lodge, within 18 months he was at the top of his class. His formative years were spent growing up in Muizenberg, where for two months of the year, the Season, he and his parents ran a kosher boarding house. He always said that it was from this experience that he understood service, which to him was one of the key tenets of architectural practice.

He entered UCT architectural school in 1946 and graduated with a First in 1951. The head of school was Professor Thornton-White, and whose influence and that of Frank Lloyd Wright can be seen in Louis Karol’s early houses. Professor Pryce-Lewis taught architectural history, drawing exquisite chalk versions of Banister Fletcher on the board, and Dougie Andrews taught professional practice, which was extremely useful as my father had already opened his practice and was having some contractual issues. It was during his thesis that Mike Munnik and Dirk Visser worked for my father and as such were the first employees of the firm. (According to Mike Munnik, they were both paid £20 for two weeks work.) After graduating and whilst waiting for the one project to begin, he worked for six weeks for Kantorowich and Hope, his only employers.

Once his practice was established, he married Sonja Katz in November 1952, and remained married to her his entire life.

His practice went from strength to strength, surrounding himself with talented individuals, and creating Cape Town’s first multi-disciplinary corporate practice. In later years, the office, through a programme of education and empowerment, became a Level 2 BBEEE studio. Upon his retirement, the practice evolved in Peerutin Karol Architects.

The list of his best-known buildings is by no means definitive, and many buildings deserve their own story, as do the relationships to Pius Pahl and Monty Sack.

  • Albion Mill flats                            1959
  • St Martini Gardens                      1960 (together with the Bauhausler, Pius Pahl)
  • Mobil House                                1968
  • Nedbank Foreshore                    1973
  • Gardens Shopping Centre         1974 (together with Monty Sack)
  • Shell House                                  1977
  • Golden Acre                                1979
  • Gardens Commercial High         1980
  • Cape Sun                                     1983
  • Bet Hamagen, Tel Aviv                1985
  • Mobil Court                                  1986
  • Herschel School Theatre             1988
  • Pier Place                                     1991
  • Victoria Wharf                              1992 onwards
  • Goldfields SA (JHB)                     1987
  • Sandton Convention Centre       1994
  • Holiday Inns across SA                2009
  • Society House, Lusaka                2011
  • Liberty Umhlanga                        2012
  • The Point, Sea Point                    2018
  • Citadel, Claremont                      2018

He was always especially proud of the Golden Acre and the Victoria Wharf as he believed that these were both people’s places and were transformational in the urban life of Cape Town. He never wished to be an academic, nor write architectural treatise, rather he wished to design with his team, well-detailed and beautifully designed buildings that would make financial sense for his client whilst giving the public joy and pleasure. I believe that he was exceptionally proud of the fact that he made it attractive for young and talented graduates to work for a commercial firm, particularly as he saw architecture as a collaborative endeavour.

A suitable epitaph might be what the British architect, Charles Holden wrote in 1937,

“I preferred to say it in stone or in bricks and mortar or in any other building material.

I still feel that is the only language worthwhile, for what I say now doesn’t matter half as much as what the building itself has to say to you and the generations to come”

Eitan Karol

Louis Karol first interviewed me in a lift going from the 14th floor of a building on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg in 1980. He interviewed me the second time minutes later en route to the airport and his flight back to the “head office“ in Cape Town. During the first interview he offered me a dried fig from a small white paper bag cupped in his palm. During the second interview, he offered me a job in the “branch office” Johannesburg. Everything I needed to know about my new boss, I had just learned.

In the years that followed, he inspired, drove & guided me & a bevy of architects with Monday Morning Meetings & a few guidelines:

  • the youngest person at the table must speak first ( in offering comments at a presentation )
  • if you don’t come into work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday (I truly do not recall if he actually said this or if we simply presumed it)
  • Every site is one meter too short.
  • Every client is an important person.
  • Presentations: research, rehearse & relax.
  • Have a few accurate facts to offer in a design presentation.

Louis played to strengths. He passed projects to the genius in each person on his team: to those who could set up a project to withstand the perils ahead, to those who could distill the brief & site into form, function & context, to those who could discern the method & materials to deliver a design, to those who could translate that into detail, to those who could print and deliver information in no time at all, to those who kept order in all the information produced & to those who kept the team plied with smiles and refreshment and to those that readied the office landscape for the next long day.

For Louis, each project offered the opportunity to think anew about the city, habitation, materials and construction. He proposed and implemented modular prefab kitchen & bathroom components in apartment construction, conceived of connecting trains, taxis and buses with retail outlets & pedestrians unhindered by automobiles at street level, providing natural light & air to each office work space, creating apartment living in the city centre. Every project unlocked ideas for a greater project – he could grow an urban project out of a small renovation.

And now, good night, Mr. Karol. I remain grateful for the trust, opportunities and support that you gave me and so many others at Louis Karol Architects.

Evon Smuts