Isidore Shifrin holds the Degree of Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cape Town, South Africa (1954) and a Diploma in Arbitration from the South African Association of Arbitrators (1968), the latter subsequently elevated to a Fellowship of the Association.
He emigrated from South Africa to Melbourne in Australia in 2005.
I met Isidore in 2004 when we worked together on a project -House Dayton- in the Erinvale Golf Estate in South Africa. He was virtually a sole practitioner for most of the 45 years of his career, working for the greater part in an office building – Buitenkloof Centre – which he designed in Cape Town in 1972. During this time I was delighted to visit his own iconic house which he had built in the historic Boshof Avenue in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands.
He greatly influenced my views on architecture, the arts (including film), and on meaningful communication. And so, given that he was an important part of my architectural development, I share his professional experiences with you, via this interview.
- How did you become interested in architecture as a profession?
At first, I was interested to study to be an engineer, partly because of my interest in maths, but is seemed much less interesting than the creative opportunities which a career in architecture seemed to offer. I’d just matriculated, I was 16.
2. Which architectural works/architects from the past have inspired your work?
I was influenced by the work and writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Alvar Aalto, as well as by their works that I’ve visited – Wright’s houses, le Corbusier’s works in Switzerland, Chandigarh, in France and in Zurich, van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, also his Tugendhat House in Brno and Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroeder House in Utrecht.
3. In how many architectural practices did you work before setting up your own?
Before starting my own practice, I worked in Cape Town, in London and Tel Aviv for a total of seven architects, all over a period of some 6 years.
- Who comprised your team, if you were not a completely sole practitioner?
After practising entirely on my own for a short while, I began to employ 4th year architectural students, and in later years, up to 4 qualified architects, later joining another firm in an association for a major school project.
- How many projects did you carry out?
I completed about 920 projects between 1960 and 2015.
- Where did you work on your projects?
The drawing work for almost all of the projects was done in my house studio, in the offices of my practice in Cape Town and in Jerusalem.
- What services did you provide?
The extent of architectural services that I rendered was virtually dictated by clients. These ranged from their requiring only a partial service such as a concept design, but for the majority, full services including comprehensive supervision of the works until completion, were the norm.
- Besides Cape Town, in which other cities/countries did you execute any work?
I’ve worked additionally in London, Tel Aviv & Melbourne, and in the USA in a consultative capacity.
- What fees did you charge for your work?
Professional fees were generally charged at the percentage rate recommended by the SA Institute of Architects, which ranged from 6% to 15% of the cost of the works carried out under my direction. For certain other services, such as arbitration and mediation, fees were charged on the basis of the time spent. In special circumstances fees were waived.
- What is your general approach to architectural design?
My approach to design emphasised functionality first. I also followed the principles of ancient Greek architecture, that is “usefulness and beauty” and Mies van de Rohe’s famous “form follows function”. My work has also reflected the time during which it was done and the materials that were appropriate.
- Did you ever work with other consultants, eg artists, landscape architects?
I’ve worked only with other architects.
- What were the greatest challenges you’ve had to face in your practice?
Perhaps the greatest challenge was to reconcile the available budget (where it was rigidly fixed) with all of the client’s requirements. A very different challenge was for clients to communicate and articulate their needs, so that it would’ve been rare to hear from the client when the project was handed over : “I wasn’t sure what I wanted at the beginning, but now I see that this is what I wanted all the time”.
- What and where were your latest projects in South Africa?
Latest projects included:
- A National Monument one-time whaler’s house in the St James suburb of Cape Town,built in 1800 and reconstructed to serve as a family holiday house.
- An historic house conversion on the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem.
- Reaipela School for 600 pupils, in the Northern Cape Province, South Africa.
(The Reaipela School project was initiated by Nelson Mandela “to help advance the quality of life of the country’s most marginalised rural communities”
- What did you look for in hiring co-professionals and others?
I looked for talented, conscientious, like-minded young people, able to give as well as receive, Interested to take responsibility, happy to face difficult design challenges and then find solutions, and in all, with a sense of humour.
15. Do have any advice for any young person, contemplating ‘architecture’ as a profession?
Meet and engage with architects. Seek employment with them, in whatever work is available. If real pay isn’t appropriate for employees with little or no experience, work for less — at the outset! Visit and inspect buildings of note, preferably with a guide. Read about architects, their philosophy and their works. Study related subjects, like the landscape, the environment, freehand drawing, photography.
16. What were the best moments of your working days?
Waking up first thing in the morning, with a clear head. Last thing at night, before going to sleep. At both times of day, solving the unsolved of the day just gone or especially planning for the day ahead, looking forward to it …. and then living it!
17. What kind of music do you choose to listen to, and why?
Baroque music – for its musicality, its sense of order, it’s discipline – JS Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann.
18. Have you ever taught the subject of ‘architecture’?
No, not formally, but for nearly 50 years, teaching “architecture” to anyone interested, but particularly students who spent a year (their ‘training’ year) of their studies in my office, and were enthusiast about what could be gained by a practical learning experience. I also lectured in a part-time capacity in the Department of Building Management at the UCT from 1976-1985.
19. What do you fear for the future?
I fear an ongoing desecration of the planet, what men (and women) have done to it – the
land, the sea, the air.
I fear the endless intolerance that people (and their governments) display to peoples who are ‘different’ in whatever measure. Arrogance and denigration and insult prevail.
I wish for more tolerance, discourse, engagement, discussion, even agreement to disagree
I wish for more loving thy neighbour………