Obituary published by the South African Institute of Architects - 20 March 2020.
Robin (Rob) Fee passed away at the age of 82 after a short illness on Friday 13th March 2020.
Robin was a partner in RFB ARCHITECTS and in FEE CHALLIS ARCHITECTS prior to his retirement in 2012.
Born in 1937 in Pietersburg (Polokwane) Robin attended Primary school in Pietersburg before going to Michaelhouse. After matriculating in 1954, he completed a post matric at Michaelhouse and enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1956. At Wits, Fee was in the same class at John ROY and Michael CHALLIS who would later become partners in RFB, as well as Mira FASSLER KAMSTRA.
As a young man, Rob was a keen sportsman and later completed the Comrades on four occasions.
After graduating with a B.Arch in 1962, Fee left for London as did many graduates of his generation, where he worked for 2 years, completing the requirements for registration with the RIBA. In London he met an Australian, Lauretta (Lol) who was nursing in London. They married in Sydney in 1965.
In 1964 Fee left London to work for Skidmore Owens and Merrill (SOM) in New York. This was a decisive moment in his career. Fee was working on large projects in SOM's New York Office when they were commissioned by Anglo American for the Carlton Centre. The project was to be done with local Johannesburg based RHODES-HARRISON HOFFE & PARTNERS. Fee left SOM in New York in 1967 and returned to South Africa to join RHODES-HARRISON HOFFE & PARTNERS on the Carlton Centre project till its completion in 1971. Clive CHIPKIN in Johannesburg Transition remarks that SOM's design for the Carlton represented "a major transfer of technology and culture from New York to Johannesburg".
This was the beginning of a long illustrious career in commercial practice in Johannesburg. Fee maintained a fascination for tall buildings throughout his career.
In 1972, Fee became a founding partner of RHODES-HARRISON, FEE AND BOLD. Later the Practice became RFB together with partners John ROY, Mike CHALLIS and Peter BOLD.
RFB completed an extensive list of buildings during its 30+ years in existence. Notable projects include 55 Marshall Street for Anglo, the Ernst & Young and JCI headquarters in the Johannesburg CBD, the new terminal of OR Tambo Airport and Bank City as a part of a consortium with REVEL FOX & PARTNERS, GAPP and MEYER PIENAAR & PARTNERS.
The Practice received several ISAA Awards of Merit.
Robin was a creative and strategic thinker in Practice. This is illustrated by the example of the extension to the Johannesburg International (OR Tambo) Airport Terminal, where a creative breakthrough was made when it was realized that the building could be extended on to the apron by using the triangular space between the wings of parked planes. In collaboration with Arup, the solution was to build the pods offsite and tow them into position using the aeroplane tug vehicles. However, ideas were owned collaboratively not singularly as part of team solutions to complex problem solving.
Fee served the profession in various capacities. He served on the Transvaal Institute of Architects both on the Committee and as President from 1984/5. At a national level he was Vice President in Chief of the Institute of South African Architects in 1986/7 and the President in 1988/9.
Fee was the Southern Africa Regional representative for the International Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat for many years.
He maintained a long association with his alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, in various capacities, from serving on the Faculty Board and Advisory Board to the Head of Department to acting as a long term external examiner in the B.Arch Thesis examinations.
On retirement, Fee continued with consulting work in Arbitration and Heritage.
Robin was an Architect ferociously committed to Johannesburg. He was an optimist who loved a good chuckle. Associates as well as architects trained at RFB have gone on to find their own successful practices in Johannesburg and overseas.
He will be missed by his former colleagues, friends and family.
(Heather DODD, 2020 03 20)
Submission by Flo Bird to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
The Legacy of Robin Fee
I was very sad to learn of the passing of the architect Robin Fee a few days ago and especially sorry that I had not expressed to him in his lifetime my thanks for his role in the conservation of Joburg's heritage.
I would like to pay tribute to Robin Fee for two extraordinary instances where he put Johannesburg's old buildings above any profit he or his firm could make if they had upheld their clients' demands for demolition.
The first was the row of small shops in Diagonal Street which in 1988 The Star had sold to JCI. Robin was commissioned to develop skyscraper offices for Ernest and Young. Diagonal Street at that time was developing fast thanks to the re-location of the Stock Exchange to the north end. It seemed quite logical that all these tiny shops so quaint in which Indian shopkeepers had been plying their trade for more than 80 years with families living in rooms above the shops, should be replaced by huge office blocks. That was Joburg and the direction the city was taking and has always taken.
Robin was prepared to cross the floor and join the conservationists and the local community in their outrage at the suggestion that Diagonal Street was outdated and due for Urban renewal. The rights pertaining to the properties were enormous and we were the sentimentalists who dared to suggest that Diagonal Street was a treasured part of the City's history. He came forward with the idea of moving Fruit Alley over and cantilevering the new building high above what had been the highly successful fruit alley. Fortunately in the City Valuer's records he had found a precise record of the size of each and every shop on fruit alley so these could be shifted over reconstructed while the shops fronting Diagonal Street would remain intact.
As long as JCI remained the owner and subsequently the Mines Pension Fund the shops and Fruit alley flourished. When Urban Oceans took over they raised the rentals so high they drove out the shop-keepers in fruit alley and then stopped maintaining the buildings. They continued raising the rents and yet the shopkeepers hung in there. They are still there today and Diagonal Street remains as one of the jewels of the City. It could do with help but not from developers who lack any feeling for Joburg's history. Ernest and Young were succeeded by the Franklin which hangs over the deserted fruit alley.
I encountered Robin some years later when Sanlam bought up the entire block around Anstey's and huge pressure was brought to bear on the National Monuments Council for the demolition of every building so they could have a full block for development. We said goodbye to Anchor Mansions, Africa House...... even the Anstey's extension with its magnificent bank of six escalators, but not to Anstey's. Once Again Robin told his Client "This far and no further. We cannot find a financially sustainable use for Anstey's but we cannot support demolition." He advised them to give the building to the National Monuments Council. Instead the Preservation of Anstey's Trust was set up to keep the building going.
So when we look at these two Joburg treasures today we have Robin Fee to thank for his willingness to sacrifice huge commissions in order to save Johannesburg's heritage. He was involved in the restoration of other buildings in town such as Stuttafords and the Barbican, but I believe his finest legacy was saving Carmel and Nathanson's Building in Diagonal Street, and later Anstey's for Johannesburg.
(Flo Bird, March 2020. Submitted by William Martinson)
These notes were last edited on 2020 03 23