BArch 1948 (Cape Town) PhD 1952 (Cape Town)
Barrie Ebenezer Biermann was born in Bloemfontein on 26 December 1924. He was educated at Boys High School, Kimberley, and Grey Institute, Port Elizabeth. On graduating from the University of Cape Town with a BArch degree in 1948, he became the first Helen Gardner Memorial Prizeman and undertook a tour of study in Brazil in 1949.
While at the NBRI as an HB Webb Scholar and research assistant, he was a collaborator in the establishment of the Minimum Standards of Accommodation. For his doctorate on the origins of Cape Dutch architecture he travelled in the Dutch West Indies and in Europe. The degree PhD was awarded him by his alma mater in 1952. In August of that year he assumed a lectureship at the Natal School of Architecture which was established in 1947. In due course he was promoted to Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor; he often deputised as Head of Department and served a term as acting Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Allied Disciplines. He retired at the end of 1989 and in the following year he was appointed part-time lecturer for the course History of Related Arts, an appointment he held until his death. In 1969 BIERMANN is listed in partnership with Jakobus Daniel THERON (cf BIERMANN & THERON).
Barrie Biermann died at his home, 38 Glenwood Drive, following a cardiac arrest, on Good Friday, 29 March 1991.
The doyen of the South African architectural academic fraternity died in Durban over the Easter weekend. These tributes were submitted by Hans HALLEN and Derek WANG:
"It is forty years since Barrie Biemann came to the School of Architecture at the University of Natal and to a Durban that was still in the post-war development boom. He was recruited by Professor Paul CONNELL to build up the full time staff, when the school changed from the part-time school under the direction of Calvert McDONALD to its new form.
A favourite son and graduate of the University of Cape Town he came to the new post after a time working at the National Building Research Institute in its most optimistic days and before South Africa's exercise in social engineering dampened so much of the work of its institutions. He did research immediately after World War II when the NBRI was involved in setting standards for low-cost housing. It was a theme with which he was familiar for it had been the subject of his thesis in his final year at University.
He travelled extensively in his post-graduate period as he completed his work on the origins of the Cape Dutch style. The result of his study was a new and enriched understanding of this architecture. To the irritation of some, we learnt that not all the Cape Dutch buildings were white-walled but were painted in a spectrum of various warm ochre colours (reflecting as it did a more open and less doctrinaire time).
His understanding of the architecture of South Africa was encapsulated in his remarkable Boukuns in Suid-Afrika. A succinctly written book, beautifully illustrated with his own drawings, it showed the main themes of the history of building in South Africa. It explained the early days, the British influence, and traversed work as diverse as Indian temples, 'kapstyl' houses, the classic Zulu kraals of the Mahlabatini region, and the corrugated iron churches of Rev Rose. More than anyone else he set the agenda for the study of building, particularly indigenous building, in South Africa.
His interests were not constrained by a narrow view for he saw architecture as a broad and complex intertwining of the arts. To him, urban and landscape design was architecture, sharing a place with sculpture and painting in giving expression to the many cultural drives of a society. He brought to his teaching a rich understanding of the scale, character and form of buildings as well as their symbolic value, and demonstrated how appropriate setting and interaction between buildings could best shape urban architecture. The Durban he saw had opportunities like Venice in its relation between harbour and city. His examples in teaching were drawn from sources as diverse as the siting of a Greek temple, the way in which the Hindu temples of Durban were placed, the organisation of buildings in the Malay Quarter, or the form and shape of Greek villages. The catholic nature of his taste and the inquiring nature of his scholarship gave his lectures and writings a great freshness, whether he dealt with architecture, heraldry or red wine!
Never a follower of fads and their obscure language, his writings and language were free from jargon. As a teacher he was enthusiastic. To him, as he told me every year, the new batch of students was the best ever. He communicated with great clarity, although this was tempered by the enigmatic in the choice of metaphor and allusion. He was of liberal mind and in the struggle with the limits of freedom vis-à-vis order, he would come down on the side of freedom for the creative in design. Long before the feverish debate on Post-Modernism he taught that parallel with the creative urge to make the new, there was the need to come to terms with inherited values. With this he showed us the role of irony and mannerism in architecture and art. Although the movement now so strong for the preservation of good old buildings had a powerful influence in his teaching, he was cautious of attempts to a codification that constrained the inventive.
He leaves no long list of buildings built – these were few in number as he never sought out a role as practitioner. This is not to say that his buildings have had no influence, for his own house built some thirty years ago has given inspiration and pleasure to his pupils, friends and colleagues.
In its design he gave physical expression to his teachings to wonderful and enduring effect.
He lived to see his students come back as professors and heads of departments and gain approval for their skills from their peers here and abroad, and rewarded with prizes, awards and honours. He did not live to see his teaching return its due in built form in both scale and quality of building in the Durban region. After the first development flurry of the fifties and early sixties, Durban receded into a political and investment backwater that did not provide the sustained economic growth needed to feed the talents of his pupils. They built well and with imagination but mostly the work was small in scale.
Since the death of Dr Rex MARTIENSSEN, South African architecture has needed a man of scholarship to fulfil the cultural need we have for heroes of myth and legend. Biermann seemed a natural successor for this role, for he knew well the decline into schism and rigidity that brought the modern movement in architecture to an end in South Africa. His hope was that a deeper understanding of the forces at work in South Africa's own and rich cultural history would yet help restore its architecture to optimism and give it a creative role in South Africa's future.
Great teachers live on in the minds of their pupils, and despite the great and sad dispersal of talents spread out from South Africa, his pupils here and elsewhere find themselves asking as they contemplate their latest concept, 'I wonder what Barrie would think of this?'"
Hans HALLEN, April 1991
"Professor Barrie Biermann received many academic honours and made a name for himself as a lecturer, author and critic. Yet for all the clarity and wit of his exposition, he lived and died an enigmatic figure.
He was notoriously absent from staff meetings, he was away travelling as often as he could manage, and he had a knack of disappearing into thin air after you had followed him down a corridor. He also shied away from the duties of overt leadership. Still, his presence and his influence permeated the school.
He was often obstinate in his opinions, and yet he could be completely flexible in his assimilation of new ideas, right to the end of his life.
He was enormously erudite, yet he sometimes espoused causes and ideas that seemed to border on the eccentric.
He was profoundly articulate, yet it was from him that I learned the value of obscurity in exposition.
To me Barrie was essentially a student and a teacher, and the trail of his interest is to be found in many of the books in the library and many of the minds of his colleagues and students.
His approach to teaching can best be described as homeopathic, since he did not so much present the student with distilled wisdom to ingest as stimulate the students' capacity to learn, often using mystery and obscurity in this task.
He spoke with the quiet self-assurance of the enlightened intellectual, whatever the controversy his words raised. Right to the end, for better or worse, he was captain of his fate.
Although he was already retired, we will miss him sorely now that he is gone, for he is truly irreplaceable.
Vale Barrie Biermann!"
Dr Wang is Editor of 'Ths Wk,' the weekly news sheet of the Natal School of Architecture, from which this tribute is reproduced.
Tributes to Barrie Biermann
Barrie Biermann, academic, architect and humanist, died on 29 March 1991.
An obituary, including the eulogy delivered by Dennis CLAUDE, friend, fellow architect and academic, at a cremation service held on 6 April, was carried in Planning 115.
In paying tribute to Barrie Biermann, Northwards Bulletin publishes short texts written by six people who knew him well.
A list of the writings of Barrie Biermann published over the years, is given.
Architect Jack BARNETT spoke at the commemorative gathering held on 18 April 1991 at the Cultural History Museum, Cape Town
Barrie Biermann had a vital and extraordinary mind, a deep devotion to the cause of architecture and a wonderfully entertaining and very often unconventional interpretation of history.
In time, I have no doubt, his massive contribution will be fully evaluated, professionally and academically. This is not the purpose of this gathering, which essentially is meant to provide an early opportunity for Barrie's friends and colleagues to come together to mark his untimely death. We have lost a person who will be greatly missed in many spheres, a man who played a unique and vital role as lecturer, teacher and critic. His own house which he designed and virtually built himself, perhaps embodies most exactly the essential spirit of this dear man, with its many touches of personal idiosyncrasy and sense of being, its modesty and perception, its unity with the landscape, its celebration of the overriding importance of human above all other considerations.
I first met Barrie when he and I started architectural studies in 1941, and we went through the course together. His formidable facility and intelligence were apparent from the start and he was an inspiration to all around him. In those days our political loyalties were worlds apart, but I think as we both matured over the years we changed, and there were many aspects on which I believe we agreed in the end, although I never had the opportunity to openly broach political issues with him.
It is difficult to accept the fact, and one does so with great sadness, that his lively wit and intelligence henceforth will be available to us only through his writings and his buildings. But he leaves behind him a rich heritage and many students, now architects, whose interest in architecture was stimulated by his marvellous way of teaching history.
There is no easy way of measuring worth, and deaths by their nature inspire eulogies. Barrie, who despised phoney sentiment, certainly would not have wanted hollow praise, so I am careful, Barrie, to be saying only what I sincerely know to be true. We have lost a greatly beloved and admirable man, a vital innovative force in our intellectual lives and one whose wisdom is going to be greatly missed. Certainly for my generation, Barrie's death marks the end of an era.
A student's tribute to Barrie Biermann written by architect, Finlay Rintoul HEUNIS
I have had the privilege of knowing Barrie from his earliest teaching days until his death, and whilst knowing him always was to have been influenced by him, at no time was his influence greater than when he was my studio master. It is of this time that I write.
Barrie, or Dr Biermann, as students knew him in 1952 when he started teaching at the Natal School — it was my first year — rapidly established the reputation of being a character. It was known that he had spent a year in Brazil, and Brazil was big in architecture in those days. It was rumoured that he had sailed there in a sailing ship, though he never spoke of it.
He could draw magically on the chalk board and his history of architecture lectures were the highlights of the course. (It was only later that we learned how privileged we had been to have attended these lectures). His design crits were an event which students from other years often attended. He was considered to be quite a chap, but mysterious. His office was in the corner of our studio and as he did not encourage knocking, students wishing to speak to him had to catch his attention while he was in transit between office and studio door. The difficulty with which this was achieved led to the rumour that he could walk through walls. He was something akin to an oracle.
The awe and aura of mystery which he engendered in first year students soon changed to respect for his ability and privacy. The warmth he felt for his students, but never showed effusively, gave the Oracle human qualities in time, but he remained the Oracle despite growing friendships which the five year course facilitated.
He demonstrated without lecturing, the importance of striving for excellence and what now is called time management. A board-crit would leave you knowing that you could do better and that provided you organised it, there was sufficient time left to effect improvements and draw to the standard he expected. 'Excellence' in design terms meant efficient functional planning, technical practicality and the qualities which a study of good historical buildings teaches. Besides this, the building design had to have 'good manners' - a respect for its context.
Whilst he expected his students to work hard he also expected them to enjoy life (as he himself demonstrated). He was known to recommend that beach sand — smoothed of course — and a stick, could serve as drawing media. I first tried this out in my second year. The weekly one-day design subject was on this occasion, A monument celebrating the centenary of the waterworks of a Karoo town.
My enthusiasm for a monumental task on a hot day evaporated as Dr Biermann described the dry heat of the Karroo in his introductory talk. After half an hour's uninspired effort I drew a very large tap projecting from a mastaba-shaped base inscribed 'Let there by water' and went to the beach to find the inspiration which might have enabled me to replace the monstrosity. The hot sun and interesting sights made serious effort impractical and I arrived back at the studio in time to see my drawing already displayed and Dr Biermann doing his tour of inspection. He broke his stride only momentarily at my drawing. He began his address, "There has been an attempt at elephantine humour, something we do once in first year — and never again." My discomfort turned to understanding as he went on to speak poetically about the moods and excitement of water. The whole class repeated the exercise with enthusiasm and much better results.
This was an example of the Biermann deep end approach. The helping hand was extended after the student had experienced the problem, and the student would be lifted to a higher level of achievement at that stage by Barrie's input. At all times his input had to be earned — especially at board crits. Too little effort would be met with a witty brush-off. "This sheet of paper still has a great deal of potential." Real effort, proved by sheets of neat diagrams tracing the development of the design process would be analysed and useful criticism given.
My last experience of his brush-off and generosity happened during the final stages of my thesis presentation. My water colour rendering — a requirement in those days — was turning out badly and I went to Dr Biermann for advice, as he was a fine water colourist. He felt the stretched paper and said, "Good paper — it will wash." That was all! I stormed out of his office as I was beyond his witticism at that stage. Next morning, after I had washed the drawing in fact, he arrived unannounced at my digs which required a considerable deviation from his normal route and spent a good deal of time demonstrating techniques which would improve the drawing.
A short time before Barrie died, I telephoned him, not knowing that he was not well (he never talked about his health) to ask him where an overseas visitor might find information about a building a long dead relative had designed. Needless to say, Barrie offered good advice. That phone call ended as so many others had done, "Thank you Barrie", to which he replied "Good man!" This summed up our relationship. I have much to thank him for and I hope that, with his high standards, I was in fact his concept of a good man. That would be high praise for one of his students.
Architect Mira FASSLER KAMSTRA writes of Barrie Biermann's home on the Durban Berea — an environment which speaks so strongly of the man.
It is not every day that one drives 600 km to a funeral.
Barrie's death, so unexpected, announced on the telephone by a disbelieving and saddened Gordon SMALL, stirred us out of complacency, not only to make the pilgrimage to pay Barrie tribute, but to share the occasion with other old friends.
Barrie's funeral was simplicity itself. No ceremony, no fuss. The only adornments — the coffin, flowers, some proteas, a wreath of laurel and a swathe of veld grasses. The only words — those of his family and closest friends, expressing their love and admiration in moving tributes.
Cheese and wine served afterwards at his house on the Berea, stirred poignant memories. Everyone present had at some time or another experienced Barrie's unique brand of hospitality — always thought provoking, inspiring, entertaining, enigmatic, ironic. His love of fire making was legendary — I recalled him lighting a small pile of dried leaves, which he had arranged delicately on the edge of his verandah (on his verandah where time stood still) and sending them up in a whisp of smoke to scent the evening air.
As the bubble of conversation died down and people drifted off, I was able to experience once more this very special house and remember the era to which it belonged — that time in Durban in the early sixties, when I had worked in the then young Hans HALLEN's office, and lived in the city. Memories came flooding back — of the enthusiasm for interpreting the Modern Movement anew; of the influence of Brazil; of the attempts to simplify (whilst accommodating the steamy climate) architecture to its essentials; to build to minimal budgets; to find new ways of using the simplest of materials, whilst incorporating richness in the form of artworks, objects found and historic fragments. I recalled the preoccupation of the time — the design of stained glass windows and ceramic panels, and experiments with fibreglass. I remembered the leading role played by Barrie in all of this, to which the house bears ample testimony.
Built at the time for very little money, using largely unskilled labour, its plan and section are simplicity itself — a U set sideways on a slope, the parallel wings linked by a ramp, the mono pitched roof following the fall of the site. An austere frame of concrete, brick and steel, contrasts starkly with the sensuous details built onto it. The tactile quality of painted brickwork and rough off shutter concrete heightens one's awareness of the process of building; the apparently simple disposition of space, rendered highly complex through detailed modulation and accented by amber coloured shafts of roof light which sculpt freely-shaped, interior, walls. Bricks laid parallel to the sloping ground give the 'contortions' of the sinous boundary wall a faintly Gaudiesque air!
Much of old Durban was being demolished at the time when the house was built. The lavish incorporation of Victorian cast iron grilles counterpoints powerfully with the house's Modernism. Yet in apparently formalising the sensuous tropical vegetation, these elements bind the house more closely to its site.
Modernism demands the denial of the symmetry of the cast iron entrance portico, and of the development of its axis. The unabashed offsetting of the decorative panel containing the sliding front door by the right or left turn required on entering, provides a masterly and ironic response.
The verandah is the focus of the house; so integral is its relationship with the living area that few can remember when last the sliding aluminium doors were closed! (Suddenly I was reminded of another verandah, in another place at another time — Roberta BURLE MARX' eighteenth century farm house, overlooking the Campo Grande, outside Rio de Janeiro. Is it that verandahs are so similar? Or is it that the sensibilities of their owners and their collection and disposition of meaningful objects have something in common? Was Barrie influenced by Brazil more profoundly than I realised?)
Iconographic references — framed inscriptions in Latin; a terracotta urn near the entrance; Greek coins set into white marble squares; these in turn set into the verandah floor; re-used 'old' white marble slabs; are constant reminders of Barrie's love of the Classical and of the Mediterranean, and of the subtlety of his evocation.
At the verandah's edge, the white, smooth, tapering marble stair, casts deep shadows over a bed of rounded river pebbles — a masterpiece of design in counterpoint and contrast.
In moving down the open-air ramp past lush tropical vegetation on one side and the discreet doors to Barrie's monastic quarters on the other, I became even more aware of the opposites which create such dramatic tension in this house.
Looking at the familiar collection of objects — driftwood, pebbles, old artifacts, drawings, paintings, sculpture, evoking variously the elements, Africa, craftsmanship, modernity — I was left with an overriding sense of timelessness. In contrast were Barrie's well worn boots, speaking more eloquently than words of their owner's love of the mountains and the veld, which brought me back to the present.
In the morning sunshine of that tropical court, I felt keenly the truth of the remark expressed earlier — that Barrie had become a legend, and that his death marked the end of an era.
What of the future? What will become of this house, this icon of its time and of its creator? Will it be sold and its contents dispersed? Will it be demolished, or will it be altered beyond recognition? Or could it be acquired and held as a museum, thus enshrining for future generations those lessons of minimalism and richness, of restraint and exuberance, of subtlety and confrontation so eloquently demonstrated?
In my mind's eye I could see Barrie, crowned in laurel, smiling ironically at our predicament — in the Elysian fields there are no such dilemmas, only the meeting of higher minds — Barrie surely is in his element!
Barrie Biermann— a piece written by a close friend, publisher Daantjie Saayman
He wore khaki pants patched on the seat, a faded khaki shirt and Wupperthal shoes tied with 'riempies'. His cheeks were cleanly shaven and his moustache neatly trimmed.
He carried a large tin filled with mountain honey, two floor breads (asbrode) and a bundle of cedarwood tied with a leather thong. The small faded canvas rucksack could have dated from the First World War but his cheeks were cleanly shaven and his moustache neatly trimmed. He shaved every morning, no matter where.
The final call for the Durban flight was resounding through the departure hall. "It may save time if I take my luggage with me", he offered as he handed over his ticket. The ground hostess had a puzzled expression until she saw the name, Professor Biermann. "Another dotty one," her expression said when he smilingly handed her his boarding pass.
We were back from one of our many walks in the Cedarberg and just in time for Barrie's flight home.
Of the many people who have walked the Cedarberg with me Barrie was the only one who gave himself completely to the Mountain and the people who live there. He saw Michaelangelo's hand in the rock formations and Socrates in Frederick Joubert, our donkey man, and the mountain men took him to their hearts.
The only time I heard him swear in anger was one night when a lynx took the boerewors that he wanted to save for breakfast, from under his head. My wife woke up and said "haai hoor hoe vloek Barrie." He apologized for disturbing her rest.
He is mourned by the mountain men and for me and my family Durban has lost its charm.
Felix Potocnik, senior lecturer and consultant psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Groote Schuur, reflects on a friendship.
Barrie and I first met on a tour to the Far East in 1978. We shared hotel accommodation for the month and got to know each other very well. We differed somewhat in living habits : he would pace himself carefully and awaken with the birds, while on one occasion I even missed a day-tour owing to an excess of saki the night before. I remember smarting under Barrie's gleeful vindications.
On other mornings however, the ritual was always the same. In a fatherly way he would wake me gently at 5 am with a glass of fruit juice (I never discovered where he got it from at that hour). Then we would set off to see the temples. We had to see them that early because "the light was then at its best" I was told. The temple monks I assume felt likewise, for they were the only beings we ever saw up and about at that hour. Barrie was a superb guide and teacher. For me, somewhat peasant-like until then, buildings always had "just stood there" — and this was my first introduction to some of the complexities and the dynamics of these structures.
Other passions for detail and the enjoyment thereof in all its forms, were wine and other alcoholic beverages. We had very definite ideas regarding South Africa's first ideal after-dinner night-cap. It was not going to be as sweet as a liqueur nor as potent as a Schnapps. The base was a 300 year old Swiss monk's recipe that I had inherited from my late father. We were going to round it off with an infusion of herbs and then distil it. To this end we had no less than 12 varieties of herbs steeped in spirits while Barrie had meanwhile obtained the all-important stil. Sadly, this alchemical process now may not reach the final stages of the philosophorumlapis.
When on an occasional visit to Durban, I would call on Barrie. The 5 am ritual would prevail. It invariably was a champagne breakfast at a nearby park or on a beach, in order to watch the sun come up. We then would go sight-seeing, drink wine over lunch and dinner and talk about everything and anything that came to mind. A favourite topic was the annoyance we shared in our dealings with bureaucracy. Barrie had a broad knowledge in matters of life and was extremely well-read — in part a result of his sleeping habits. He would retire early, wake up in the early hours of the morning to read and then follow this with a short sleep until dawn.
We did the Cedarberg trails in the Cape on a few occasions. As usual donkeys were necessary for carrying our supply of wine. On one four-day trail this amounted to 20 l of box wine for the four of us. The camp-fire dinners were always impressive. As usual Barrie would dig up something special for these meals without forgetting the delicate touches. For instance, he would produce a tin of smoked mussels, and also provide the fresh lemon to go with it! Apart from being very good fun, Barrie would instruct us in the other arts of survival in the mountains. This essentially meant commandeering a favourite camping haunt, while sending any newcomers to a different site with excellent explanations as to why this was best for them. Almost invariably these trips included his two close friends : Dennis Claude from Natal and Daantjie Saayman from Somerset West. On our last trail together the latter challenged a lagging, grunting Barrie with: "Barrie, hoekom kreun jy so?". To which he replied "Ek kreun van die lekkerkry, Daantjie!" . This retort became a catch-phrase for that trip and now lives on in our memories.
But clearly, Barrie had physical ailments and his knees may have been giving him more trouble than he would readily let on. Barrie feared weaknesses of the body that heralded the ravages of age. Although I miss him terribly, I am glad that the gods listened to him when he felt that the time had come.
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