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BARNETT, Jack Judah

Born: 1924 12 07
Died: 1996 07 09


Born in Cape Town. His primary school years (1932-1937) were spent at Hiliel College, Muizenberg. From 1937-1939 he attended Muizenberg High School. In 1940 he enrolled for a BA Fine Art, of which he completed the first year of study before switching to Architecture (1941-1945) in the School of Architecture in Cape Town, from which graduated with distinction. In 1946 he was awarded the Helen Gardner Travel Scholarship residing in New York, USA (1948) and visiting Italy. In 1949 he was employed in the offices of Harrison & Abromowitz. Between 1948 and 1949 he assisted in the practice of Kantorowich & Hope, and in association won the national architectural competition for the Harrismith High School, Orange Free State. In 1949 he was awarded the Baker Scholarship to the British School at Rome. Between 1950 and 1951 he, as Herbert Baker Scholar, was resident at the British School at Rome (BSR). He toured Italy extensively, as well as visiting Sweden, Denmark, France and England. He attended the Berlin Youth Festival in East Berlin. In 1952 He left for Israel where he was employed at the new town of Ashkelon as resident architect. The water tower here was his first built project and he designed the public buildings in town the centre. He married Naomi Shapiro in November of that year. In 1954 he returned to Cape Town to open architectural practice. Between 1955 and 1957 he was appointed Studio Master at the University of Cape Town School of Architecture. He was detained on 10 April 1960 with Naomi Barnett (his wife) in terms of the State of Emergency. He spent nine weeks in Roeland Street Gaol and Worcester prisons along with Bernard GOSSCHALK and Gerald GOLDMAN, architects in the employ of his practice. In association with F Lamond STURROCK he won the national competition for the Klerksdorp Civic Centre. The two architects, FL STURROCK and Jack BARNETT, submitted the Fourth Premiated Design in the Johannesburg Civic Centre Competition, 1962 - placed equal fourth with MORGENSTERN & MORGENSTERN and with MOROSS & GRAFF. In 1967 he, in association with KANTOROWICH & SKACEL, won the national architectural competition for the the Civic Centre 'Stateway', Welkom. He served between 1973 to 1977 as committee member of the Cape Provincial Institute of Architects (now Cape Institute of Architects), between 1975 and 1977 as President. In 1977 he was recipient of the Institute of South African Architects Award of Merit for the Baxter Theatre. in 1982 he was awarded the Gold Medal Award from the South African Institute of Architects for outstanding academic career and success in many architectural competitions. He also served as Member of the National Board of the South African Institute of Architects and as Member of the South African Council for Architects (SACA) and Chairman of Education Advisory Committee of the South African-Council of Architects. In the period from1978 until 1996 he acted as architectural correspondent for the Cape Times. Between 1981 and 1994 he was Trustee of Community Arts Project. BARNETT spoke at the commemorative gathering held on 18 April 1991 at the Cultural History Museum, Cape Town, as a tribute to Barrie BIERMANN. He was the 1994 Sophia GRAY Laureate and delivered the lecture as well as exhibiting his work (see Sophia Gray Lectures & Exhibitions.

[From a photo-statted biographical outline submitted by his son Adam Barnett and expanded with information submitted by William MARTINSON]


Jack Barnett's son, Adam BARNETT - also an architect, who practices in London – provided a copy of a chapter on Jack Judah Barnett from an unpublished and incomplete book titled ARCHITECTURE IN SOUTH AFRICA SINCE 1945. The book was authored by Peter Melvin, an architect in the UK, who met Jack Barnett - and others - in his role as inspector of South African schools of architecture for RIBA accreditation. Melvin also included chapters on Barrie BIERMANN, Gabriel FAGAN, Revel FOX, Pancho GUEDES, Hans HALLEN and Roelof UYTENBOGAARDT.

Note: Peter Melvin unfortunately passed away prior to completion of the book. Adam Barnett has provided the necessary permission to make the contents of this chapter available on Artefacts. Adam Barnett has also provided a postscript to the chapter regarding the statements made by Melvin.



Jack Judah Barnett was Jewish. The heritage of persecution has enabled Jews to live under alien regimes better than most. This was so in his case since for the majority of his life he practised under the yoke of apartheid. He was detained in prison for 2 months after Sharpeville for his socialist views, being a member of the South African Communist Party at the time.

Barnett grew up in the Little Karoo, a semi-desert area of Cape Province; the open and simple grandeur of the landscape was reflected in his architecture. It was also an influence on his vision and philosophy of life. Always a liberal and a member of the South African Communist Party in earlier life, he was a champion of democracy, a believer in the civilising effect of the arts and in the pursuit of excellence.

He graduated from University of Cape Town at the age of 22 years in 1946. As a Helen Gardner scholar, Barnett went immediately to the United States and worked there for 18 months in the New York office of Harrison and Abramowitz. There he was able to see major buildings of the modern movement only previously known from photographs. The photographs had been cunningly shot and the buildings were now showing defects. This experience of reality sowed a seed of discontent with modernism. He later said that everything built of it's time was "modern" and that style was irrelevant.

Returning to South African via Italy was a turning point, about which he later wrote:- "It was on that trip that the abundant richness of art and architecture stretching back to the times of the Roman Empire hit me right between the eyes ... I suddenly realised what architecture really was and how magnificent buildings and art could be ... the humanity and warmth of all this contrasted with the cerebral products of the 20th century international style ... converting me forever to learning of the principles of building that have been with me ever since.

  • To be diverse and not convoluted in my thinking
  • To respect ordinary people and their needs
  • To deplore prima-donarism and to cultivate a style near to anonymity
  • To make buildings that live happily with the environment
  • To use materials correctly

Buildings should be comprehensible, easily read statements of good proportion and human scale."

Back in Capetown in 1948 it was the beginning of 40 years of apartheid. He joined the office of Roy KANTOROWICH and learned the discipline of brickwork. Then in 1951 he was awarded a Herbert Baker Scholarship, which afforded a year in Italy, half being spent at the British School in Rome and remainder travelling. This re-acquaintance with Italian culture consolidated the influences of his earlier trip.

After Italy, Barnett spent two years in Israel as an architect to the new town of Ashkelon, where he designed a central shopping centre, a water tower and a synagogue, which was not built. It was during this period that he married Naomi who had come out from Cape Town to join him and who was a prominent left wing journalist.

Returning to South Africa again, Barnett started a practice based on small domestic projects supplemented by teaching at UCT. As a political dissident in an increasingly alien climate it was practically impossible to obtain corporate or government commissions. Seeing competitions as a means of overcoming this problem as well as an opportunity to demonstrate excellence in design, he took advantage to participate and there followed a series of successes. Firstly, Welkom Civic Centre with KANTOROWICH AND SKACEL, which enabled Barnett to give up teaching, and then Civic Centres at Klerksdorf, Pietermauritzberg and provincial buildings at Kimberley. (It was while Barnett was working on this project that he and two architect colleagues were detained in prison for nine weeks. They were provided with drawing boards and carried on working.)

As a spin off from the Welkom project, he was commissioned to do the College of Music at UCT which in turn led to the Baxter Theatre, probably his best known project. In a lecture at UCT in 1981, he said as the first substantial public commission by direct appointment and not through competition, the freer approach to design taken at Welkom could be developed much further. "It turned into a summing up of my architectural ideas ... The large pitched roofs were still there, but floating free above the theatre and concert hall below. Concern with the play of light on wall surfaces was carried further than before and I discovered the joys of using roughly textured brick walls, which give such scintillating life to the spaces they define."

Great attention was paid by Barnett to the relationship between the building and the sloping side. The extensive overhanging roofs establish a horizontal plane that defines this relationship with the accommodation grouped under and within the profile. Stepped walkways around the perimeter maintain constant contact with the slopes and the coarse textured brick walls provide a warmth and reassurance of delight but in a disciplined manner. At night the building is magical. Circular lights in the overhanging roofs appear like globes in the black sky, highlighting the rough textured surfaces and transforming the water flowing in the walkway balustrades, into sparkling streams.

Barnett attributed the public success of the Baxter as proof that the average person will respond affectionately to a building that approaches and excites him. This following his view that "Architecture is of the people for the people and should be designed by friends of the people."

Pietermauritzberg, has some fine Victorian public buildings, the original City Hall in characteristic orange brickwork, probably the finest. In this tradition two modern public buildings have been added in recent years. The Law Courts, by SMALL AND PETTIT, and through the competition system, a new City Hall by Barnett. While both buildings are in the local brick tradition, the City Hall pushes the boundaries of brick technology beyond existing limits. In this building the three-dimensional form of the façade not only solved the sun screening need, but also added a modulated detail that is both respectful and an enhancement which generates a visual conversation with the past.

In the early 80's, the University of Western Cape (UWC) was given authority to appoint their own consultants and Barnett was appointed to design the University Centre and subsequently, the redesign of the Central Square, the Great Hall and a block of lecture theatres and seminar rooms. This substantial group of buildings provided a challenging opportunity to fulfil both his philosophical intent and for his creativity to bear on a scale not previously afforded. The result is a fitting conclusion to his career. He has created a sophisticated urban collegiate space with a series of timeless buildings, broad generous and simple, in rough textured brick and glass facades under sweeping roofs. No hi-tech here, only well proportioned and rigorously detailed buildings that have evolved from his early influences gained in northern Italy, his admiration of Sir Herbert BAKER, and of classicism. Work on the project has continued since his death under Graham FINLAYSON, an associate.

Apart from teaching Barnett was an active critic expressing trenchant and controversial views on architecture throughout his career. Always a 'loner' his commitment to an architecture that was accessible to the general public, true to his political beliefs and free from stylistic expressionism, resulted, increasingly in conflict with his peers and led to further isolation. One of his prime campaigns in retirement was to promote the competition system as the only satisfactory means of combating corruption in political patronage. In discussion with the government he was about to visit Finland to research the system and report on it's successes when he died.

Barnett brought buildings to South Africa that are free of fashion, speak to the people with sincerity and delight, are well proportioned and timeless.

Together with his activities as critic and commentator, the collective body of work fulfils his belief that art and architecture provide a civilising influence on society, even under repressive circumstances.

At the presentation of the Institute of South African Architects, Gold Medal of Honour, in 1982 he said:-

"Architecture is a great cause, which has pre-occupied me most of my life. I fervently believe that a healthy built environment is important, indeed vital, to a man's continued sanity, and the profession best fitted to mould such an environment is that of architecture."

© Copyright Estate Peter Melvin


Postscript by Adam Barnett, January 2015

The chapter on Jack Barnett by Peter Melvin is essentially Melvin's personal interpretation of the facts and was written after my father's death, so could not be verified by him. For instance I don't think my father was ever a member of the Communist Party though many of his friends were.

(Submitted by William MARTINSON)

List of projects

With photographs
With notes

Baxter Theatre: 1977. Cape Town, Western Cape - Architect
Civic Centre: 1957-1961. Klerksdorp, North West - Architect
Civic Centre, The; 'Stateway': 1964-1969. Welkom, Free State - Architect
Milnerton High School: 1958 : 1982. Milnerton, Western Cape - Architect 1982 additions
Municipal Offices: 1961. Central, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal - Architect
Roggebaai Fountain, Foreshore: 1959. Foreshore, Cape Town, Western Cape - Architect
University of Cape Town, School of Music: 1970s. Cape Town, Western Cape - Architect
University of the Western Cape, Great Hall Lecture Theatre: 1989-1991. Bellville, Western Cape - Architect
University of the Western Cape, Students' Centre: n.d.. Bellville, Western Cape - Architect
University of the Western Cape, University Square: n.d.. Bellville, Western Cape - Architect

Books citing BARNETT

Fisher, Roger & Clarke, Nicholas. 2014. Architectural Guide : South Africa. Berlin: DOM Publishers. pp 14, 36, 37

Muwanga, Christina. 1998. South Africa : a guide to recent architecture. London : Köln: Ellipsis : Könemann. pp 80-83

SAWW & Wooten & Gibson. 1963. Who's Who of Southern Africa 1963. Johannesburg: Wooten & Gibson (Pty) Ltd. pp 126

SAWW & Gibson, PJ (Managing Editor). 1965. Who's Who of southern Africa 1965. Johannesburg: Combined Publishers. pp 125

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. 2001. The British School at Rome : one hundred years. London: British School at Rome. pp 211