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MARTIENSSEN, Rex Distin

Born: 1905 02 26
Died: 1942 08

Architect


'He ranks with Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Oud, Alto, Wright, the great pioneers of modern architecture' (from a tribute to RD Martienssen after his death by Fernand Leger in the South African Architectural Record (Jan 1943:22). Martienssen's pioneer role in promoting modern architecture lay not so much in the work he executed but in his articulate enthusiasm for the art of his time. Architectural students at the University of the Witwatersrand and South African architects in general were influenced by Martienssen's enthusiastic and intellectual exploration of both classical and modern architecture through his lectures, teaching and writings between 1925 and 1942. Through his writing his influence extended after his early death and provoked widespread reactions in South Africa. The period from the late 1920s until the Second World War ranks as one of the liveliest and most interesting in South African architecture generally.

Martienssen was born in Queenstown and educated at King Edward's School, Johannesburg. He matriculated in 1922 and enrolled in the degree course in Architecture, University of the Witwatersrand in March 1923, repeating his first year in 1924. In 1925 the South African Architectural Record published the first of his numerous articles for that journal, 'What is Architecture?'

He toured Europe from December 1925 until February 1926 with the first South African Students' tour of Europe - one of two architectural students to do so, WG McINTOSH being the other. They visited the southern part of England as well as Paris, Belgium and Holland and was particularly impressed by recent buildings in Holland. On Martiennssen's return to South Africa he enrolled in the third year of the Diploma course in Architecture, transferring back to the degree course in his final year (1928).

During vacations he obtained office experience with COWIN, POWERS & ELLIS, Gordon LEITH and (1928-9) KALLENBACH, KENNEDY & FURNER. He visited the Cape on a further student tour, guided by PEARSE, in 1928; he won the AS FURNER prize for originality in design in 1929 and graduated in April 1930 (in absentia) with the Degree of Bachelor of Architecture. In January 1930 he travelled overseas again, this time accompanied by N HANSON, visiting France, Italy, Austria and Germany - including a particular visit to Stuttgart and its Weissenhofsiedlung development - returning to South Africa in May 1930 and commencing practice in Johannesburg. The practice was a modest one and did not occupy all his time as he seems to have joined the staff of the School of Architecture in January 1931 (Herbert 1975:55) as a temporary lecturer and lectured on 'The Desirability of International Architecture' to the University Architectural Society, a society which had been founded in 1926, in April 1931. He was also appointed a member of the Journal Committee of the Transvaal Provincial Institute of Architects (The South African Architectural Record) in the same year. The first of the new series appeared in January 1932 with Martienssen and Denis LEFEBVRE appointed joint Editors but as things turned out, Lefebvre was given little say in the running of affairs. This appointment coincided with Pearse's Carnegie Tour during which period Pearse, having appointed Martienssen a full-time lecturer late 1931, left the running of the School in the hands of AS FURNER (by this time in private practice) and Martienssen for the six months the tour would take. Martienssen lectured in the History of Architecture and of Fine Arts and was an inspirational teacher; his enthusiasm for the new architecture of Europe and particularly for the theories and work of Le Corbusier were put into articles for the SAAR, provoking differing reactions form the readers but influencing and supporting the new generation of architects.

By 1932 Martienssen had four house designs behind him; one executed before he qualified, two which had remained projects and House Sharp, his first house as a qualified architect, a modest single story building with a shallow pitched roof (House Sharp) is sometimes claimed to have been a pioneer of the shallow roof pitches employed by Douglass COWIN. Martienssen's career as an architect fluctuated between attempts at practice and his real interest which was the theory of architecture and writing; he pioneered an elite society of fellow enthusiasts, the Alpha Club (1932), based in the University. The club was replaced by the zerohour group (December 1932), their ideal: 'to create a living architecture in South Africa' (see Herbert 1975:95) which published a single but historic edition of their journal in April 1933 and copies were sent to all the overseas journals. Herbert says that the publication of zerohour 'swept South Africa from its remote backwater to the international scene, albeit in a modest role' (Herbert 1975:98).

In November 1933 Martienssen left again for Europe, the countries in which he spent most of his time on this occasion were Greece and France where in Paris he visited Le Corbusier and brought him a copy of Zerohour. Le Corbusier introduced Martienssen to the work of Leger which influenced Martienssen's attitude to modern European art. On his return from Europe in early 1934, he entered into an association with John FASSLER to practise architecture, according to Herbert (1975:109), at the time both were temporary lecturers at the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, with much in common. They were joined by Bernard COOKE mid-1934 and the association MARTIENSSEN, FASSLER & COOKE began. The association lasted about a year and was responsible for several built designs and a number of unbuilt projects, all of which were of considerable interest at the time. The best known of the built works are Peterhouse (1934-5) and House Stern (1934-5) in Johannesburg, both of which reflected Martienssen's Corbusian theory.

The association drifted for a while before Martienssens's and Fassler's energies were focused on their work at the University once again from mid-1935, Martienssen continuing to lecture and write. In September 1936 Martienssen applied for the newly established Chair in Architecture at the University of Cape Town. It was a severe disappointment to him when in January 1937 it was announced that LW Thornton WHITE had been appointed to the Chair. Martienssen remained at the University of the Witwatersrand. In December 1937 he married Heather BUSH, a talented student at the School of Architecture. Together they spent about six months in Europe, enjoying further meetings with Le Corbusier and with Leger. Throughout the trip Martienssen kept up a formidable correspondence with colleagues and student at the University. On his return mid-1938 he was appointed Acting Head of Department for the remainder of the year. In 1939 he was awarded a Masters Degree in Architecture, his thesis concerned Constructivism. He continued his studies towards a D Litt, with the topic 'The Idea of Space in Greek Architecture', submitted in March 1941. Well received by the University, it was recommended for publication, which was to occur posthumously about fifteen years later. Herbert observes Martienssen's study of classical theory and building as a 'disengagement from the study of modern architecture and a re-orientation towards the study of architecture per se ... the pioneer stage of the Modern Movement was over' (Herbert 1975:201). He had developed an appreciation and respect for vernacular architecture during his last European trip, something for which he had always admired (see his appreciative criticism on House Elsworth).

In 1939 Martienssen was elected President of the Transvaal Provincial Institute of Architects (WG McINTOSH was president in 1942) and the revolutionaries were in the palace. In the same year Corbusier wrote to Martienssen from a threatened Paris enquiring about possible work for him in Johannesburg and Martienssen had to discourage him from any such hopes while proposing a three week lecture tour by Le Corbusier in South Africa, sponsored by subscription in South Africa. Nothing was to come of this proposal, partly due to the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 Martienssen was designing his family house in Greenside, it was completed in 1940. According to Herbert (1975:224) BS Cooke considered that Martienssen's design for the most notable feature of the house, the front elevation, owed much to the formal compositions of Leger and Helion and to the aesthetic theories of Kandinsky. The brick panel, used as a decorative feature and not structurally, supports the theory of Martienssen working out an abstract collage (Herbert 1975:225). Martienssen enlisted in July 1942 and died in August 1942 in Pretoria.

TPIA 1930; ISAA 1930; ARIBA 1930. (ARIBA nom papers 1930; Herbert 1975; De Villiers 1974)

Publ: For an exhaustive list see Herbert 1973

All truncated references not fully cited in 'References' are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Books by MARTIENSSEN

Martienssen, Rex Distin. 1956. The idea of space in Greek architecture, with special reference to the Doric temple and its setting. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press

Martienssen, Rex Distin. 1972. La idea del espacio en la arquitectura griega : con especial referencia al templo dórico y a su emplazamiento. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Nueva Vision

Books citing MARTIENSSEN

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pp 59

Emanuel, Muriel. 1980. Contemporary architects. London: Macmillan. pp 518-519

Fisher, Roger & Clarke, Nicholas. 2014. Architectural Guide : South Africa. Berlin: DOM Publishers. pp 12

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pp 63, 147

Herbert, Gilbert. 1975. Martienssen & the international style: The modern movement in South African architecture. Cape Town - Rotterdam: AA Balkema. pp

HSRC. 1977. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume III. Pretoria: Tafelberg for The Human Sciences Research Council. pp 584-585

Potgieter, DJ (Editor-in-chief). 1972. Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa [SESA] Volume 7 Lit-Mus. Cape Town: Nasou. pp 225-226

van der Waal, Gerhard-Mark. 1987. From Mining Camp to Metropolis - The buildings of Johannesburg 1886-1940. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council. pp 187

Chapters in books by MARTIENSSEN

Martienssen, Rex. Plate 25. The Lutheran Parsonage, Cape Town (Rex Martienssen 1928): in 1957. Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa: pp 75

Martienssen, RM (Photographer). Plate 94. [b] Nederburg, Klein Drakenstein. Wall Cupboard (vide Plate 109) [Photo]: in 1957. Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa: pp 144

Chapters in books citing MARTIENSSEN

Various. A Biographical history: in 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8): pp 58

Kossick, SG. Martienssen, Rex Distin: in 1977. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume III: pp 584

Fassler, J. Plate 71. [a] Meerlust. Pigeon House (R. D. Martienssen mens. J. Fassler Delt.): in 1957. Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa: pp 121

Herbert, Gilbert. MARTIENSSEN, Rex (Distin): in 1980. Contemporary architects: pp 518

Fisher, Roger C. The Third Vernacular: Pretoria Regionalism — Aspects of an Emergence: in 1998. Architecture of the Transvaal: pp 123

Gardiner, KEF. MARTIENSSEN, Rex Distin: in 1972. Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa [SESA] Volume 7 Lit-Mus: pp 225

Keath, Michael. The Baker School: A Continuing Tradition 1902-1940: in 1998. Architecture of the Transvaal: pp 79