Jacob Blacker: Architect who assisted Goldfinger
Tuesday 22 July 2008
Before and after the Second World War, London was a magnet for talented and ambitious Commonwealth architecture graduates seeking professional experience. One of these was Jacob Blacker.
Born in Ladysmith, South Africa, of Lithuanian stock, Jac Blacker arrived in Britain in 1957 – with a fellow student, Gerald Levin – following the advice and indeed the "insistence" of Thornton White, his architecture professor at the University of Cape Town. After a three-month tour of Europe seeking out the modern and historic buildings he had read about in South Africa Blacker returned to London determined to work for the Paris-trained Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger. With trepidation, he presented himself at Goldfinger's office, unfazed by what seemed to be the architect's total lack of interest.
He recalled years later, in an interview for the British Library National Life Stories series "Architects' Lives" (2000) that it was a test of initiative, which he passed. Goldfinger hired him, demanding that he turn up for work the following day. Blacker was 26 years old and ready for the challenge of working with a great if formidably difficult and cantankerous architect influenced by Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos and helped out of the classical trap of Beaux-Arts training by Auguste Perret, the master of reinforced concrete, who had pioneered an elegant and stripped-down modern approach to classical traditions.
In 1958, Blacker's first job in Goldfinger's office was to develop the preliminary sketches the architect had prepared and to draw up the winning competition entry for the Elephant and Castle development. It included the later but fine Odeon Cinema of 1965, seating over a thousand people and now sadly demolished, and Alexander Fleming House, the main focus of the project, which was shown in Blacker's competition drawing of 1958 connected by high-level bridges to the two adjacent structures. This bridge idea later proved to be a chief characteristic of the Balfron Tower, another project with which Blacker was intimately involved.
Balfron and the later Trellick Tower had separated concrete stair towers, topped out with projecting boiler-house chimneys and linked by bridge structures to the residential blocks. The recessed balconies and the framed maisonettes give the residential blocks their iconic appearance. Balfron, which Goldfinger treated as an experiment – which included a short stay in the penthouse for himself and his wife – was carefully detailed, with its marble-lined entrance hall, nursery school and a laundry room that was vandalised before tenants moved in.
Such bold experiments in high living for the old London County Council resulted more recently in the Balfron Tower (1967) being listed Grade II*. Balfron had acted as a kind of prototype for the even more Corbusier-inspired Trellick Tower (now also listed), completed in 1972, seven years after Blacker left Goldfinger's office to set up his own firm in Bloomsbury.
Jacob Blacker Architects became known as a practice concerned with the efficient use of energy in buildings and dealing with concerns over maintenance issues. Its workload extended from London to the Middle East and Bangladesh, and included urban projects and exhibitions as well as the design, construction and renovation of many houses in the NW3 area, the restoration of Burgh House, Blacker's own studio/house in Willow Road and the Islamic Art Museum in Jerusalem.
Blacker had a long-serving commitment to London's architectural culture, both as chair of the RIBA Education Group and the Camden Society of Architects. An important appointment was as a Governor of the London Building Centre which published his influential Building Owners Maintenance Manual and Job Diary, an invaluable pre-computer guide that stayed in print from 1966 until 1982 and is seen now as a precursor of this government's Home Information Packs. In the 1970s he taught design at University College London, ran the professional practice course at the AA School and in 1979 formed Witkin Blacker Associates.
Jac Blacker was a personable, elegant individual devoted to his family, as well as a sharp dresser. He was generous with his time, kind to those he worked with and a credit to his profession.
Jacob Blacker, architect: born Ladysmith, South Africa 13 October 1933; married 1962 Del Reynolds (three sons); died London 14 May 2008.
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