obituaries: Wim Swaan

Christopher Brooke
Wednesday 25 October 1995 00:02 GMT

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.

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