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A Tribute to Norman Eaton



The following is the transcription of a talk given at the Memorial Service for Norman Eaton by the Cape Institute in Cape Town which was discovered in the Western Cape Archives and submitted to us by Nicholas CLARKE. We have reproduced this as closely as possible to the original except for the insertion of links. We have not corrected any typing errors and have refrained from inserting the usual '[sic]'. Prompting notes by the speaker have been retained.



Norman Eaton was born on the farm Drooge Vlei, near Durbanville on the llth October, 1902. His father H.R. Eaton farmed there as his father had farmed there before him. Norman Eaton's grandmother was formerly Henrietta Musgrave, and his great grandmother Sara Norman Ebden. These last two account for the family names Norman Musgrave.

Norman Eaton's mother was Maria Brand, born on Zandvliet near Faure, niece of Christoffel Brand, Speaker of the Old Cape Parliament, and therefore also closely related to Johannes Brand, one time President of the Free State. Norman Eaton's grandmother Brand was Aletta Cloete, a direct descendant of the original Hendrik Cloete of Groot Constantia. He was at school at Bishops from 1915-1921, and an architectural student at the Witwatersrand University from 1923-1928 under Professor PEARSE. At this time, he was articled to the late Gordon LEITH in Johannesburg. He went to the British School at Rome as Herbert Baker Scholar from 1930-32, during which time of study his travels covered most parts of Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, England, Holland and Central Europe.

He entered private practice in Pretoria after returning from Europe in 1933, and continued there until his death. In 1945 he visited South and North America for the South African Government as architect for the £3 million Ministry of Transport Building in Pretoria, fully designed and detailed in 1949 when it was abandoned due to a change in Government policy.

He visited most of the African countries within the last thirty years, and the influence of African motifs were marked in his architectural thought.

His most notable architectural works include the New Netherlands Banks in Pretoria and Durban, the Wachthuis and the New Arts Centre, Pretoria, the restoration of the "Oude Pastorie" in Graaff Reinet, and a number of fine private houses in and around Pretoria.

Apart from his membership of the S.A. Institute of Architects, he was also a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, of the S.A. Akademie van Wetenskap en Kuns (receiving its Gold Medal award for services to architecture in South Africa for the period 1957-1960); of the Pretoria Music Society; Die Afrikaanse Musiek Klub van Pretoria; the Simon van der Stel Foundation and the Pretoria Klub.

The S.A. Institute of Architects, through its Central Council, is at present considering how best to present the work and achievements of Norman Eaton to the public, possibly by means of a national exhibition and lectures, but this must necessarily take some time to do effectively. All we want to do this evening is to mark in a simple and heartfelt way, our deep sorrow at his death. A great South African architect has passed away.

Leone Battista Alberti, Book IX Chapter X.

"Doubtless Architecture is a very noble science, not fit for every head. He ought to be a man of fine genius, of a great application, of the best education, of thorough experience, and especially of strong sense and sound judgement, that presumes to declare himself an architect. It is the business of Architecture, and indeed its highest praise, to judge rightly what is fit and decent; For though building is a matter of necessity, yet convenient building is both of necessity and utility too. But to build in such a manner, that the generous shall commend you, and the frugal not blame you, is the work only of a prudent, wise and learned architect. To run up anything that is immediately necessary for any particular purpose, and about which there is no doubt of what sort it should be, is not so much the business of an Architect as of a common workman; But to raise an edifice which is to be complete In every part, and to consider and provide beforehand everything necessary for such a work, is the business only of that extensive genius which I have described above: for indeed, his invention must be owing to his wit, his knowledge to experience, his choice to judgement, his composition to study, and the completion of his work to his perfection in his art: of all which qualifications, I take the foundation to be prudence and mature deliberation."

Norman Eaton - Architect, Scholar, Teacher. A man of simple character, devoted to the practice of his art. Many admired his work, but few knew him intimately. He studied history because he felt it had lessons in terms of contemporary practice - he called this historical continuity and saw the architect's work as an extension of time-proven principles stretching back in time. He spoke of it when he was restoring Reinet House:-

"The practice of preservation seems to me to be part of an instinctive desire on the part of man for some sort of assurance that there will be continuity in the struggle of the human race to survive and dominate its environs and the circumstances of its existence on this troubled globe.

That the preservation and study of these objects of past human and natural activity is an essential part of our unending search for an understanding of life and all that that implies, will be easily understood by philosophers, historians, archaeologists and others whose interests led to this same primary question, though it will probably always be a little difficult for the man in the street to see what connection there is between these things and his own day-to-day concerns.

There should, in my opinion, exist in any country, perhaps more particularly in a young country such as ours - as much visible, authentic reference as possible to the best creative efforts of its past in the form of the actual works themselves, - a reference which will offer and establish the criteria from which future creative effort will spring. But don't misunderstand me! Creative effort worth the name is not a plagiaristic thing. Its superficial features can never be successfully copied from the ensemble and applied to another. The spirit, however, - or what might be described as the wholeness of mind, which governed the former ensembles - (not their separated details) the spirit as it is revealed in the full flowering of all great historic ages, is unalterable, so that when the ultimate goal is reached little that is inappropriate or false remains and one is moved - without necessarily knowing why - by an awareness of complete honesty of purpose and achievement, of a great beauty - both visible and inherent - that is inseparable from the thing we call "truth".

To an amazing degree the best of the l8th and early 19th century Cape architecture has achieved this goal. To an amazing degree in its relatively humble way, it can, in my opinion, be compared to the great architectural achievements of all time because, remember, the ultimate in these achievements does not in the end depend upon size as such or upon lavishness of embellishment or other such superficialities, but, so often, upon just simple, honest thought. Because this is a habit more than usually difficult to achieve in the complicated, chaotic, experimental times we live in today, we cannot afford to lose sight of it.

Great as our prospects are for creative achievement in the unfolding modern idiom of architecture - and they seem to me to be as full of promise as anywhere else in the world today- I do not believe that the aesthetic pinnacle reached by this Cape-Dutch work, in and of its own time and country, will be exceeded and it will - if we preserve it - stand for all time as permanent evidence of the ideals and qualities that must be striven for, if this high point is again to be reached in the future. A real appreciation of the underlying principles embodied in this visual charm - will, I am convinced, point the way - (for those not blind to see it) - to the revival of a truly great indigenous architecture in this country - different in function and in outward appearance though the result must undoubtedly be.

Because of this, I believe that the meticulous and correct restoration and preservation of what is left of the best of these old Cape buildings in such a way that their true qualities are revealed for all to see and sense, is a deeply serious and urgent matter which - if and when achieved - must have a profound effect on our future stature as a civilised nation and that we will spoil or obliterate this heritage at our peril."

(Norman Eaton - Paper on Preservation)

In 1952 Norman Eaton was offered the position of Honorary Architect for the Restoration of Reinet House, which two years previously had been declared a monument by the Historical Monuments Commission. In 1957, after the most thorough and penetrating research and study, the restored building was officially opened to the public, and remains to us as one of the greatest examples of the art of restoration yet achieved in this country.

Slides of Reinet House shown here.

Eaton was a preservationist because as he saw it this fitted in with his main creative preoccupation:- the practise of architecture. For above all, he was a practitioner who was never unaware of the practical problems of building and spoke of them pungently at the Architectural Conference held in Cape Town in 1964. In his paper "The Architect Today" he said:-

"Aesthetically speaking, revolution as against evolution holds sway in our present time. Its effects upon contemporary art are not dissimilar to what might happen to language if we were suddenly to decide that, because it was inadequate - (which in fact it is) - to communicate the rapidly broadening horizons of contemporary thought, particularly as affected by scientific thought, everyone should therefore be encouraged to coin his own words, phrases and grammatical constructions in his own "original" way and attempt thus to convey his own version of what the higher levels of present-day thought are all about. Under such circumstances it is not difficult to imagine that verbal communication would break down - (as, in fact, I think artistic communication has, in so many instances, broken down) - and not until general agreement on idiom and semantics were re-established would we be able to understand one another reasonably well again and would the harmony and beauty of speech, prose and poetry begin to return.

Eaton agreed that developing industrial techniques were to have a profound effect upon architecture and argued for greater agreement on standardisation of designs. But again he saw this against the historical background of which he was so continually aware:-

"Strangely, and I may say happily enough, our own very young country affords an excellent example of what I mean in its 18th Century Cape Dutch architecture. Not only were all plans variations upon three basic types - the T, the U and the H -composed of multiples as it were of the simple rectangular cell - (to which elemental shape, incidentally, they finally returned in major form by the infilling of the spaces between the arms of the H, all rather like the putting together of those old-fashioned childrens blocks) - but the pitching of the roofs, the gabling of the ends and centres, the use of the same types of door and window similarly divided and shuttered, the white-washed plaster, the wooden ceilings and red tiled floors - these and many other details they had in common, formed the simple scheme upon which a thousand gently dissimilar but beautiful variations were played. It was all so simple, so practical, so unvaryingly beautiful, so "right".

He was conservative in a visionary sense, deducing from his understanding of historical precedents a philosophy of new trends and possibilities in the building industry.

He talks of the "good building behaviour" of the past, as "having a singleness of belief and purpose, a sort cf non-competitive humility and conformity in each individual expression. What strikes one so forcibly about these cohesive architectural ensembles is their acceptance in one way or another of the same basic elements and methods throughout whole groups of buildings of varying purpose. Because of the harmonious results one thinks of it in musical terms such as "variations upon a theme", but it appears to one also to be the nearest thing to standardisation that could be achieved in societies having none of the centralised industry or mass-production methods of today. The disciplines imposed by this standardisation - whatever the cause - because they were strictly, yet somehow sensitively, exercised, resulted in the achievement of those qualities of fitness, harmony, repose and beauty that civilised men forever seek and did not - (and need not necessarily, as is so often feared today) - result in an undistinguished monotony. In viewing the great assortment of conflicting, solid, seemingly immovable masses of building of uneven quality that have mushroomed with almost unbelievable rapidity in our cities all over the world in recent years one despairs, because of the sheer economics involved, of ever being able to restore order again but of-course we are always inclined to think in terms of the short span of our own little lives!

It is upon measurements and size and "principles" that I believe we have to reach agreement - I believe that the dimensions of the average human being himself - perhaps in a far simpler way than that propounded by Corbusier - are the necessary starting points in determining this dimension, for after all it is man's size in action and in rest that must be catered for. I believe that the very drainpipes, airducts and powerlines, often so disdainfully admitted as a sort of "necessary evil" into our "ivory towers" should be so integrated with the building as to "vibrate" with the same vital meaning as our own intestinal tract, our bronchial tubes and nerves and that, like our own anatomical structure not the smallest single detail is or should be there without its necessary function and in its proper place.

And may prefabrication not still hold the key to the future of architecture? Growing labour problems and the consequent growth of automation are all pointing in this direction with all the obvious advantages of fully finished and equipped building units - (the "packaged" unit is, I think the favourite term today) -whose construction can be easily and minutely controlled at centralised factories and whose coupling together on the site could be as quick and economical as their uncoupling for repair or replacement.

Should this come - and come I feel sure it will - and our profession has not taken the lead in establishing its logical and co-ordinated development, both the profession and architecture itself might well suffer incalculable harm.

I believe that our Institute and our Schools of Architecture should bend all their major efforts towards the solution of this problem and towards the instilling of comprehensive thinking towards this end into the minds of both members and students not merely with professional survival in view - as if we were some sort of Trades Union protecting our exclusive rights to a certain kind of work - but with the rebirth of integrated architecture as a whole in view.

Having stated these beliefs I do not now have to stress my obvious conclusion which (with the usual conceit of the individual) I give as my conviction that these trends towards standardization are pointers by which the architect of today should be guided if he is to meet the challenge of our times."

Norman Eaton is no more, but his thoughts as expressed in his few writings remain with us. More than these, by far, he leaves a remarkable group of original buildings, vitally contributing to the country's store of architecture. The short group of slides about to be shown are by no means comprehensive, but have been selected to convey something of the flavour of Eaton's work. They start with Pretoria; the "Wachthuis", the Netherlands Bank, and the Art Centre; show brief glimpses of domestic works in and around the city and concludes with one of his most recent and finest works, the Netherlands Bank building in Durban.

Slides of Eaton's work.

Norman Eaton had strong ties with the Cape. Professor Attie MEIRING, one of his close friends, writes:-

"The years spent in the Western Province gave him a love for that beautiful part of the country which he never lost. He steeped himself in the traditions, both architectural and social, of the Cape, and when he discovered that there were a Cloete and a Brand amongst his forebears, it helped him to identify himself not only with the people of the Gape, but with his Afrikaans speaking fellow citizens. (I rarely spoke anything but Afrikaans to him). This stood him in good stead all his life for it opened the doors for him to the homes of people like Anton VAN WOUW, the sculptor, Henk PIERNEEF, the painter, and many others in all walks of life".

Alexis Preller, recalls that his favourite words were "simple, delicate, sensitive, individual", all of which qualities were reflected in his best work.

Other close friends from Pretoria remember him as a man who would not allow drilling for gold on his farm "Cul-de-Sac" in Pretoria, because it would "spoil the beautiful valley", and how he refused a commission from a very influential client when he sensed that his freedom as an architect might be curtailed. Those who had the good fortune to share a meal with him remember his epicurean tastes and good company, his specially constructed wine-cellar consisting of two interleading chambers, in which the second only contained the best wines in case the first was rifled; the painstaking care he gave to things he loved, as when he worked on the restoration of Reinet house and went to great lengths to trace and interview descendants of servants who had worked there.

His passion for music, particularly Mozart, is recalled by Pieter Marais, who writes of how Norman Eaton heard on the radio the last part of a Mozart work which he could not recognise. He phoned the S.A.B.C. unsucessfully, visited all the music salons in Pretoria to no avail, humming the theme, until finally an intelligent assistant recognised it. As he could not find the record in Pretoria, he wrote to Pierneef's daughter in America, who eventually sent him six copies of the recording.

The Architectural profession and all those who regard architecture as a vital element in life, mourn the death of a great practitioner. His achievements will endure.

String Trio.

Mozart - First Trio in B. Plat major
Schubert - Adagio from divertimento in E Flat.

Ladies and Gentleman our proceeding are concluded.