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BIRCH, Kenneth Stanley

Born: 1914 05 18
Died: 2010 07 31


Reg No: 981
Year registered: 1946

BArch 1937 TP 1937 (Witwatersrand)

Architect, artist and philanthropist Kenneth Stanley BIRCH died in Melrose on 31 July 2010 at the age of 96. Birch's family arrived in Southern Africa from Britain in the eighteen nineties. Birch was born in Johannesburg on 18 May 1914, the youngest of seven children. He was educated at Jeppe Preparatory School and Jeppe's High School for Boys from where he matriculated. Birch graduated in architecture and town planning from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1936, being junior student to some of the famed Transvaal Group, of whom he remembered in particular MARTIENSSEN. From 1940 - 1945 he served with distinction in North Africa and Italy in the Royal Engineers of the Allied Armies.

Hereafter after he joined Anglo American. In March 1947 Oppenheimer commissioned LORNE to design new technical head offices for the Anglo American Corporation at 45 Main Street, Johannesburg, immediately adjacent to number 44 and he commenced practice in Johannesburg in partnership with LORNE (cf LORNE & BIRCH). From 1948 LORNE & BIRCH were responsible for twelve large integrated mining communities comprising the industrial plant, housing, hospitals and welfare and recreation buildings.

Throughout his architectural career, Birch worked almost exclusively in the southern African mining industry his architectural career spanning South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe where he was responsible for the pioneer development of domestic and industrial buildings and in South African gold mining towns in particular. Notably, he designed the mining town of Carletonville. His work also took him as far afield as Tanzania, Mozambique, and Namibia.

Ken Birch was a talented and extraordinary person. He donated money for all kinds of projects. He is known among the heritage/museum community for, among other things, donating money for the restoration of Joubert House in Montagu and bequeathing collections of his own art to both UNISA and the University of Pretoria. Birch was a benefactor of his high school and alma mater, among others. The Birch Block at Jeppe Boys' High commemorates its namesake, whose motto was "the boy is the father of the man". Birch supported Wits University’s Barnato Hall Residence and the Faculty of Engineering; he donated a piano for the School of Music and had an Endowed Chair and Professorship of Family Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

He also supported the University of South Africa (Unisa). The KS Birch Collections housed in the Unisa Library Archives consist of 93 water-colour sketch books, folios, 19 family and personal photograph albums and his Civilisations Book and Document Collection. Birch's 'Civilisations Collection' consists of approximately 400 scholarly publications dealing with the rise, maturity and decline of five great civilisations over 4500 years. The publications date from 1850 to the present, and the subject matter investigates the appearance of order, discipline and authority on this planet.

The Birch collection of 93 volumes of watercolour sketch books, which contain about 3000 sketches, is of special Africana interest. His beautiful and well-annotated sketches of South African scenery date from the I930s to the late 1980s. The sketches reflect Mr Birch's skill and fine use of the very difficult watercolour medium. His control of colour is excellent. The sketch books also include paintings done by him during his many visits to Europe and the Middle East. The titles of the sketch books are interesting and reflect moods in Kenneth Birch's long life, among others: Predestination, The Grand Tour, Enthusiasm, Ophir Road, Shipwreck, Cultures and Vultures, Catolica, Swan Song. The sketch book, "LE CORBUSIER", contains a sketch made by the famous architect for Mr Birch when they met for the first time in Paris, 1936.

The Birch Collections are considered an important and valuable addition to the Archival and Special Collections at UNISA.

In 1972 Birch and the Provincial Administration made the Drostdy in Somerset East available for museum purposes.

At the University of Pretoria, The Birch Collection consists of a series of watercolour paintings of gold mines productive on the Reef. The paintings, from Randfontein in the west to Heidelberg in the east, were painted mainly between 1960 and 1975. A large part of the collection consists of documents pertaining to the mining industry, books, photographs of old Johannesburg and several mining maps.

Birch was the uncle of renowned African writer Bessie Head, whose mother was Birch's sister. In his booklet, The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the Late Bessie Amelia Head, Birch wrote that he was duty-bound to compile the official family record in order that "the truth be told about the particular Birch family from which Bessie emanated" and to "counteract the many legends that have proliferated around the white antecedents and relations of Bessie Head".

Birch never married, having lost his one true love in a car accident shortly after the war.

Click to go to the donated works of Birch at the University of Pretoria

You can also read an obituary for BIRCH on the Jeppe High School for Boys Association website or the University of the Witwatersrand website. See also Heritage Portal

These notes were last edited on 2020 06 11

List of projects

With photographs
With notes

Ernest Oppenheimer Hospital, The: 1949-1950. Welkom, Free State - Architect
Rovers' Club House, The: 1962. Welkom, Free State - Architect

Books by BIRCH

Birch, KS. 1981. Great gold mines of the Witwatersrand: a portfolio of fourteen watercolour paintings with historical comments on the Witwatersrand and some of its mines. Johannesburg: Birch

Birch, KS. 1995. The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the Late Bessie Amelia Head. Grahamstown: Institute for the Study of English in Africa, Rhodes University

Books citing BIRCH

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pp 223, 224

ISAA. 1959. The Yearbook of the Institute of South African Architects and Chapter of SA Quantity Surveyors 1958-1959 : Die Jaarboek van die Instituut van Suid-Afrikaanse Argitekte en Tak van Suid-Afrikaanse Bourekenaars 1958-1959. Johannesburg: ISAA. pp 88, 194

ISAA. 1969. The Yearbook of the Institute of South African Architects and Chapter of SA Quantity Surveyors 1968-1969 : Die Jaarboek van die Instituut van Suid-Afrikaanse Argitekte en Tak van Suid-Afrikaanse Bourekenaars 1968-1969. Johannesburg: ISAA. pp 89, 113