obituaries: Wim Swaan

Wim Swaan, the architect and architectural historian, was especially known in Britain as a photographer of genius, whose architect's eye brought new meaning to buildings and artefacts in every part of the world.

Swaan was born in South Africa and studied architecture at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; he later also studied at Yale and Harvard. He practised in South Africa for a time, but most of his career as an architect was spent in the United States, and he became a US citizen in 1966. He specialised in hospital design, and was well known for his work on hospitals in New York and as far afield as Alaska. Latterly he was Director of Design at Architecture for Health, Science and Commerce, based in Tarrytown, New York; from this post he retired in 1994.

Meanwhile, from 1960 on, Swaan provided photographs of exquisite quality for a long succession of books - many of them originally published in London by Paul Elek, a publisher of flair who helped Swaan to convert a hobby into a second profession. They ranged from Japan, Tibet and Egypt to Western Europe. Swaan was an artist in all he did; but also architect, historian, architectural historian as well as topographer - and it was this rare combination of qualities which gave his work its special mark.

I myself first worked with him when Elek asked me to write an introduction to The Gothic Cathedral (1969), which was otherwise wholly Swaan's work, text and photographs alike - one of five books he wrote as well as illustrated. I was deeply impressed by his work, and suggested the collaboration which eventually emerged as The Monastic World (1974). To make this a true collaboration, I proposed to accompany Swaan on a small part of his monastic itinerary. He doubted my patience, but genially agreed to put it to the test. We started at Maria Laach in the Rhineland, waiting two hours or more for the breeze to calm down and allow him to take a now famous picture of the abbey framed in leaves. He had infinite patience and persistence, which made it possible for him to realise his visions.

His photographs in The Monastic World threw floods of light on the architectural and artistic achievement of medieval religious and their patrons; their bizarre, dramatic sites have never been revealed with so much insight and panache as in his pictures of the hill-top site of Saint-Martin-de- Canigou and the archangel's view of the Mont Saint-Michel from on high. I doubt if the Golden Altar in Sant'Ambrogio in Milan has ever looked more beautiful than in his rendering of it.

In the early 1980s I planned A History of Gonville and Caius College, and lured Swaan to Cambridge to take the photographs for it by planning Oxford and Cambridge with Roger Highfield as my Oxford colleague and William Davies of the Cambridge University Press as our publisher. Roger Highfield and I found the task of helping Swaan to the remoter corners of our two cities at once entertaining and exacting: we were rewarded by some weeks of Swaan's delightful company and by the exquisite quality of the result.

Even then - though lively and genial and capable of a gruelling day's work - he was not in good health; later he deteriorated further; and died still well under 70. Those of us who knew him well have lost a warm and delightful friend - but his work will live on, to inspire future generations of architectural historians, architects and photographers, and to illuminate above all the borderline where history and art history meet.

Christopher Brooke

Wim Swaan, architect and photographer: born Kokstad, South Africa 6 September 1927; died New York City 1 October 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference