Obituary: Elisabeth Benjamin

Lynne Walker
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:05

ELISABETH BENJAMIN was a remarkably able member of the first generation of women architects who were educated in schools of architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, produced a small number of well- received buildings, and participated in the development of avant-garde architecture in Britain in both theory and practice.

Access to architectural education was a prime factor in securing women's entry into the architectural profession which had previously been blocked by institutional resistance and a series of assumptions and objections which ranged from perceived mental and physical incapacities to much-anticipated difficulties - such as mounting scaffolding and dealing with clients - that women would experience if they were ever socially sanctioned to become architects in the first place.

Like many contemporaries, Benjamin delighted in opening an office, joining the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA), entering architectural competitions, and becoming, as she put it, "a designer of my time and for my time". Nevertheless, there was a different trajectory to women's careers in architecture during her working lifetime, as indeed there often is today. The period of Benjamin's most active architectural production was intensely creative but brief, truncated by family responsibilities and the Second World War, and her later work, although socially useful, was occasional, often produced on a voluntary basis, and less central to architectural developments which conventional historians normally value.

Born in London in 1908 to a liberal-minded Jewish family, Elisabeth Benjamin was encouraged in her precociously early interest in architecture by her mother, Elisabeth Abadi, a university graduate and suffragette, and by her father, Alfred Benjamin, an entrepreneurial businessman, collector and designer of pottery. Intrigued by the houses she lived in and visited, she could "never remember the time when [she] wasn't interested in architecture", and "was more interested in building bricks than playing with dolls".

"Betty" Benjamin attended St Paul's School in Hammersmith, but was actively discouraged from pursuing architecture by the academically minded High Mistress. Her love of the visual arts was galvanised by a six-month visit to Paris, initially a routine trip to stay with cousins and learn French. Going to lectures, galleries and museums, she "learned how to look" and "walked all over the place", finding Paris "blindingly beautiful".

In 1927, after a stint at art school in St John's Wood, she entered "the chief institution for training" (as Vera Brittain called it), the Architectural Association (AA) in Bedford Square. It was her defining architectural experience. She admired Mary Crowley and was close to Pamela Jackson, both in her year, and she imbibed the "advanced" continental aesthetics and social concerns of modernism along with the standard Beaux- Arts course.

As she vividly recalled 60 years later, some AA students were making modernism while learning from it: "I was especially influenced by the work of the (later) Tecton Group [particularly her close friend and collaborator, Godfrey Samuel]. We did a lot of talking. We were all very influenced and excited by Le Corbusier and Gropius. We were excited by Vers une architecture [by Corbusier, published in English in 1927]."

Perhaps surprisingly for a budding modernist, Benjamin spent some months in the office of Sir Edwin Lutyens as a student assistant. Impressed by Lutyens's "unswerving insistence on quality and consistency", she detailed mouldings and worked on the design of the font for the crypt of Liverpool Cathedral - one of 30 staff who turned Lutyens's "little scrap of drawing on a little bit of tracing paper into a design".

Benjamin was aware of political events in Germany and became involved from 1932 with Godfrey Samuel and others in the rescue of a school of German Jewish children to the safety of England to the New Herrlingen School in Kent, which was built under Samuel's supervision. In fact, her first building was a simple wooden sanatorium for the school designed with Samuel.

She was an early member of the Modern Architecture Research Group (Mars), a rare female in the central organisation of architectural modernism in Britain. Committed to slum clearance, high-rise building and leftist politics, she contributed to the Mars Group's section of the New Homes for Old exhibition at Olympia in 1934.

Between 1932 and 1937, from her office first at home and then at 42 South Molton Street (shared with the interior decorator Enid Albu), Benjamin designed three modern houses - or more exactly two houses and additions and alterations to an earlier house - of striking coherence and freshness for which she is best-known. In Highgate, No 1 Fitzroy Park was rebuilt for Dr Edith Summerskill as a vehicle for self-presentation and Labour Party politics. Summerskill could make her entrance down Benjamin's stairway to the waiting guests assembled in the sitting room, while the dinner table, architect- designed of course, was the site of "great dinner parties" given for Labour Party grandees, such as George Bernard Shaw.

Although it is her most widely illustrated work, Benjamin professed no great love for the International Style house in Wimbledon (now demolished) whose white stuccoed brickwork she considered "a fudge". Designed with the emigre architect Eugen C. Kaufmann, it was nevertheless a bold but comfortable house, carefully planned with double glass walls, which wrapped around the garden-facing lounge, and could be completely open at their centre.

The St George and Dragon House (or East Wall) at Gerrards Cross was Benjamin's magnum opus, which she generously jointly credited to Godfrey Samuel. Illustrated by F.R.S. Yorke in The Modern House in England (1937) as an exemplar of the contemporary response to concrete, the cubic white house with curvilinear "wings" was strong conceptually, using contrasting forms and materials to produce a unified but free plan and elevation, all Benjamin hallmarks. She said of it:

To us, the central underlying theme was of St George and the Dragon . . .The

dragon being the sinuous brick wall [of opposing staircase and dining- room/balcony], always laid bare and constructed of blue sewer bricks, and St George was the rigid concrete structure bestriding it . . . it was one of the earliest examples of reinforced concrete domestic structure and was innovatory in that we used cork to line the inner shuttering and left it in situ as insulation, which proved effective.

In 1937, Benjamin married Gunter Nagelschmidt, a mineralogist, and left architectural practice to have a family. Her intention to return to architecture after motherhood was overtaken by events. The birth of two daughters, the war and a move en famille to Cornwall and then Derbyshire took her far from the centre of architectural culture in London.

As for many architects of her generation, including her great friend Godfrey Samuel, restarting practice in London after the long break of the war was not possible. In the post-war period, she continued to work as an architect for St Austell's Brewery (although shortages restricted her to design and decoration), did small domestic jobs for family and friends, and later acted as consultant for the Catholic Housing Association and advised St Albans Council on disabled access.

Betty Benjamin lived the last years of her life in Hampstead, where she was "rediscovered" by younger historians, architects and film-makers who came to talk about her work but usually ended up working with her on their own projects. Her work was exhibited alongside other architects in exhibitions at the RIBA and recorded and illustrated in the Journal of the Twentieth Century Society as well as Feminist Art News, but she probably received the most satisfaction from the listing of the St George and Dragon House by English Heritage.

Just before her death, she and the architect George Young worked for some months on a competition design for the Music and Art Centre, an extension to Alvar Aalto's museum at Jyvaskyla in Finland. She was again in her element, generously sharing her ideas, resolutely pursuing innovative and powerful ideas about form, space and function, true to what she identified as her "ideals of design: simplicity, good proportion and a peaceful background to people's lives".

Rose Elisabeth Benjamin, architect: born London 7 December 1908; married 1937 Gunter Nagelschmidt (died 1981; two daughters); died London 29 March 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments