Durban Buildings & Architecture
Crofton and Benjamin
The work of Derek Crofton and Isaac Benjamin consists largely of jazzy apartments and hotel buildings designed in the 1950s and ‘60s. Dotted around Durban and its surrounds, sometimes boldly planting themselves on the beachfront and facing the Indian Ocean, as is the case with Las Vegas, sometimes sitting on the ridge, overlooking the city, as is the case with Hyde Park, the buildings add a rich layer of modernist expression to the city. The buildings generally have a differentiated ‘front’ and ‘back’ that expresses their specific purpose. The back gives access to the units and turns away from the street for privacy, while the front expands to enclose the garden space. At the same time, rather than creating a flat façade, the architects pushed the spaces in and out, allowing rooms and balconies to have differing views of the city. The buildings that resulted from their decade-long partnership represent a muscular and expressive approach to form-making that is combined with a simple but delightful structural awareness of how loads are transferred to the ground. Crofton and Benjamin’s work is any many ways defined by a precise ability to mediate between the conflicting constraints of site, programme and environment and create opportunities for an exuberant, formally expressive architecture that reflects its locale. The abstract compositional nature of their work, the play of line, shape, weave, material and texture unite in buildings that are appropriate to their place. Both men studied architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, and met at the Johannesburg architectural practice of Harold Le Roith, an important mid-century commercial firm responsible for a variety of buildings. Their practice had its genesis with a commission for the Claridge’s Hotel on Durban’s beachfront, which was completed in 1955. In the years they worked together, they were responsible for many iconic residential and hotel buildings in the region, up and down the coast and inland to Pietermaritzburg. They also designed residences for private clients, and provided ‘upgrades’ to standard township houses for less well-off clients. In the mid-1960s Benjamin became a victim of the Group Areas Act when the Nationalist government ordered him and his fellow white neighbours to leave the racially integrated community of Isipingo Beach. He left South Africa with his family to continue his career in the United Kingdom. Although Crofton continued to practice in Durban, the partnership which had been so richly productive came to an end. Their buildings stand testimony to the possibility of creating a functionally sober, yet light and elegant architecture, which takes its influences from a broad base and turns them into ‘Durban buildings’. Although several of the works have been altered and have had key elements destroyed, many others remain intact. Their residents are rightly proud of their worth, with buildings such as Las Vegas being sought-after addresses. Derek Crofton passed away on 12 January 1981. Isaac Benjamin is still active, although not in practice, in England.
Researcher: Leon Conradie
Photographer(s): Angela BucklandDennis Guichard