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Obituary: Gilbert Herbert (1924-2017)

by Mark Donchin | May 22, 2018

We announce with great sadness the passing of Professor Emeritus Gilbert Herbert FRIBA FRAIA SAIA, a distinguished educator and author of ten books in the field of architectural history, on 10 July 2017 in Haifa, Israel.

Gilbert Herbert was born in Johannesburg on 22 June 1924, the third son of Benjamin and Sophia Herbert. Educated at Parktown Boys High School, he matriculated with distinction in English, Science, Mathematics and Art. He studied Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg from 1942-46, being a frequent prize-winner and on several occasions receiving the accolade “Scholar of the University,” and in March 1947 was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Architecture. While a student Herbert had volunteered for military service, received training in the University’s unit in the Engineering Corps, but was invalided out after a motor accident. On graduation Herbert was offered a teaching post at the University, which was converted later that year to a full-time permanent lectureship. At the end of 1949 he received a special South African Government Scholarship to study systems of architectural education and spent 1950 at the Bartlett School, the Architectural Association, the University of Liverpool; Columbia University, Harvard, and MIT. He was later awarded an MArch degree for the dissertation “Academic Education in Architecture.” In 1951 he completed his studies for the post-graduate Diploma in Town Planning.

In 1953 Herbert married Valerie Ryan, a graduate of Cape Town University, and they had two children, Barry Charles (1955-1977) and Margaret Lynn (b 1959). In Johannesburg Herbert continued his academic career while at the same time maintaining a modest architectural practice. Most of his work was residential, but two major buildings were the unique Cinerama Theatre, and – as part of a team – the John Moffat Building, which housed The School of Architecture and Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The most prestigious South African Architectural Award was the Baker Scholarship, administered by the Trustees in London, and awarded every four years. Herbert was named a Baker Scholar for 1957, and was required to divide the year between Italy and England. Four months were spent in Rome, mainly at the British School at Rome, and two months exploring the architecture of Europe, from Sicily to the Channel coast. In England, Herbert renewed his connections with his professional colleagues and worked in the Library of the RIBA to round off his Italian researches. Herbert’s report, “The Real and the Ideal in Italian Architecture,” appeared subsequently as several separate articles in the SA Architectural Record and the RIBA Journal.

The South Africa to which the Herberts eventually returned was in political turmoil, a country of violence and moral dilemmas, hardly a desirable environment in which to bring up a young family. Vital decisions had to be made. When the opportunity arose to take up a senior academic post in Australia Herbert accepted it without hesitation. In February 1961 the family flew to South Australia for Herbert to take up the position of Reader in Architecture and Town Planning at the University of Adelaide. After a settling-in period they integrated well into the university, the wider national academic framework, and especially the small Jewish community. The seven years in Adelaide were remarkably fruitful ones academically, and Herbert’s career flourished as his reputation grew both in Australia and abroad. Together with this expansion of output came another significant development. The Herberts were scions of families with a healthy sense of their Jewish identity and Zionist loyalties. In Adelaide these were transformed from the passive to the active sense. Planning their 1966 sabbatical, Israel was naturally on the itinerary. It was on this occasion that Herbert met with leading figures of the Technion for the first time, and the question of joining the staff was raised. When at the end of 1966 he returned to Adelaide, this move had already become a goal.

The Herberts came on aliya in August 1968, after a traumatic interregnum caused by the Six-Day War, internal strife in the Technion, uncertainty about the future, and the Herberts’ wish to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah in Johannesburg. On arrival in Haifa Herbert took up his temporary post as Associate Professor, an act of faith for someone who had held a tenured position since 1947. That faith was vindicated as temporary status became permanent; associate professorship became full professor; his South African doctorate (DLitt et Phil) was confirmed; and the confidence of his colleagues won over when, in 1973, he was elected Dean of the Faculty. The Herberts shared the joys and traumas of other Israelis. During the Yom Kippur War they were concerned, as all Israeli parents, for the safety of their soldier son. Scores of the Faculty’s students were mobilized, several were killed and injured, and all classes were postponed. The country was imperiled, and Herbert led the Faculty with consummate skill during this period of turbulence and tragedy. Life resumed: a son died in an accident, a daughter was married, birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated, grandchildren grew up, went into the army, studied. Academic achievements were recognized. Herbert was awarded the Mary Hill Swope Chair in Architecture, founded and directed the Architectural Heritage Research Centre, received a string of prizes and awards including an Honorary Doctorate in Architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand on the occasion of the centenary of the city of Johannesburg. Research flourished, international exhibitions were curated and designed: a multitude of theses and dissertations was supervised; an increasing number of his graduate students became teachers and researchers in their own right - and the flow of notable publications increased. Visiting appointments brought him to universities in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. When in 1997 the Technion celebrated Herbert’s 50th year as a teacher and researcher, the volume it produced of his collected writings The Search for Synthesis – the Jubilee edition was his seventh book. During the many years after his retirement in 1993 that creative output never ceased. In his 89th year, his tenth book on architectural history was published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd. in England. In 2015 the Faculty of Architecture organized a well-attended public function celebrating Herbert's life and achievements, with personal tributes and several addresses on topics of architectural history relevant to his work.

Herbert’s’ initiative, diligence, and breadth of interests enabled the publication of ten books, each written with vital and lucid prose and each invaluable with its inclusion of political, social, economic, and cultural history in the analysis and understanding of a previously unrevealed aspect of modern architecture:

  1. The Synthetic Vision of Walter Gropius, Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press, 1959
  2. Martienssen and the International Style: the Development of Modern Architecture in South Africa, Cape Town and Rotterdam, Balkema, 1975
  3. Pioneers of Prefabrication: the British Contribution in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978
  4. The Dream of the Factory-Made House: Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1984, 1986
  5. Bauhaus-on-the-Carmel and the Crossroads of Empire, Jerusalem, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1993 (with Silvina Sosnovsky)
  6. The Beginnings of Modern Architecture in Israel: the First Power Stations, 1921-1932, Haifa, Architectural Heritage Research Centre, (in association with the Israel Electric Corporation), 1996 (with Ita Heinze-Greenberg) [Bilingual: Hebrew and English]
  7. The Search for Synthesis: Selected Writings on Architecture and Planning, Haifa, Architectural Heritage Research Centre, 1997
  8. In Search of Excellence: the Architecture and Building Projects of the Electric Industry in the Land of Israel, 1921-1942, Haifa, the Architectural Heritage Research Centre (in association with the Israel Electric Corporation), 2003 (with Ita Heinze-Greenberg and Silvina Sosnovsky) [Separate Hebrew and English editions]
  9. Through a Clouded Glass: Mendelsohn, Wijdeveld and the Jewish Connection, Tübingen-Berlin, Wasmuth Verlag, 2008 (with Liliane Richter)
  10. The Collaborators: Interactions in the Architectural Design Process, UK, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013 (with Mark Donchin)

Herbert’s intellectual brilliance was conjoined with an warm, engaging, and affable personality, remarkable administrative and leadership skills, indefatigable work ethic, and wisdom that enabled him to help students and others with sage advice about career undertakings and personal concerns. His multitude of talents, skills, and involvements included painting, drawing, and poetry; and he devoted years of loving effort to completing a comprehensive and remarkable family history based on a painstaking investigation of archival sources of the previous five generations of each of his four grandparents as well as their descendants. In the realm of personal attachments and attainments Herbert enjoyed the respect, admiration, and love of children and grandchildren and the esteem of family and friends. With their splendid hospitality Herbert and his wife Valerie welcomed all and embraced all.  Herbert’s passions and activities in such areas as Zionism, politics, music, travel, art, theatre, and Judaism enlivened his discussions and stimulated others as well as contributed to the welfare of his extended family, colleagues, community, and beloved Israel. Such an array of attributes is both rare and precious, and his many beneficiaries all over the world are grateful for their interactions with such a genial and gracious person and for the inspired pedagogy, outstanding scholarship, and personal example that he bequeathed.

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