EULOGY : RODNEY CHOROMANSKI
Monday, 29th October, 2018
EULOGY: RODNEY CHOROMANSKI
Delivered by SAIA KZN president Ruben Reddy
It is 3 and a half days since our dear Rodney Choromanski passed on and we remain stunned, shocked, confused, deeply sad and yes angry…….
Why are we here? Just why?
The officiating Priest Deacon Henry Blair, Storm, Glen, Derek and your extended family, colleagues and friends, irony abounds today as we gather in this magnificent space for the first time. Ironic because this majestic building is yet to be opened and yet we are here to bid farewell to its creator.
A building so beautifully crafted by one so enormously talented.
A giant of our profession who walked without the swagger of those who possess such unique skill.
Rodney from as early as I can remember him in architecture school was a special talent but at the same time expressed it with such humility. Always the one who sort advice but yet had the eloquence of being able to provide it with abundance. He cycled to varsity every day from Heather Grove in Greenwood Park and on occasion during our senior years he borrowed his dad’s scooter but not before his dad went fishing at the break of dawn. They lived off that! His brother Glen had to forgo university so that Rodney could attend.
I had to ask about the Choromanski name.
It’s undoubtedly Polish!
I will allow Erik Orts Hansen a fellow member of the Class of ’88 to pick up this story. He writes from Cape Town and I quote:-
“Archi school had 3 polish young men registered. A Jacek Orzechowski, a Leszek Dobrovolsky, and a Rodney Choromanski.
Jacek, older, fatherly, was keen to meet his fellow nationals and was quite surprised when introduced to Rodney. Rodney was more tanned than expected and spoke unlike those from Poland.
But this colorful encounter was the start of an enormous respect all my fellow students had for Rodney who from humble beginnings turned out to be a rock star like individual, and so courageous. Everything about Rodney is colorful, about light, vibrancy, rhythm and movement. He will be remembered as a carer of all people not just those from his immediate community but his humanity touched so many beyond. He will be missed but never forgotten. His structures will remind us of this special one. “
So here was a family racially split by North Coast Road, literary 2 hills and a colour bar away. His uncle was white on the Red Hill side and his dad coloured on the Greenwood Park side and they never ever connected! Separated and pulled apart. Yet this family endured that and ultimately outperformed and rose above that prejudice. Rodney nor his brothers carried that burden. Mike Boulle, a fellow senior architect amongst us speaks of the family’s that came across to the Blackburn Road St Michaels Catholic Church. The Greenwood Park Choromanski’s was one such family.
Rodney designed and made the Stations of the Cross as well as the Choir Loft in that Church. Both pieces of beauty and delight.
Rodney will be the one that would never change- forever being youthful. He will remain our James Dean but without the narcissism! Playful to the extreme sometimes getting me to ask just exactly what it was that this man enacted. I remember in architecture school him placing large pieces of cardboard on the crit space and performing break dance moves on them. I kept saying to him “Rodney can't you just do a kata or tai-chi or something else to relax with”. And he would expound the virtues of popular culture which spewed out of him with such vigour and seriousness….. I never got it! I could of course hear him chuckle as I walked away…. something about sport in long pants, a dig at me playing cricket.
He was so gentle in voice and demeanour that sometimes we forgot that this man was a walking weapon. He represented South Africa in full contact Karate in a tournament in Japan after we had graduated as he had more time to train then. In a tournament in Cape Town he had his jaw wired after an opponent broke it and I, concerned as well as cynically asked why he didn’t block. His giggling response was….. "You should see the other guy”!!!
It is just once that I saw that skill in action. We had just completed what was a horrific exam in Theory and design of Structures. All but 5 of us passed. It was a shocker of an exam. I am sure the kids today don’t write that with the engineers as we did at that time. Poor Barry St Leger Denny had just bought a wonderful piece of beautiful walnut which he had painstakingly sanded and planed for a model he was making. He had placed it between two studio stools in the middle of the crit space. Rodney walked in and to this day I don’t know if he kicked it or hit it with this hands but this piece of 2 inch thick walnut exploded into a thousand pieces. Barry began by protesting that it must be replaced at once but soon realised the state of Rodney at the time and meekly suggested that "It’s okay I can always get another"!! Rodney of course soon apologised. This man was stronger than most human beings which again is indeed ironic…….Just how did we get here today? Just how? I will continue to ask that question.
A message from Pieter Zitman from London would say:
“Despite being such a cool and laid back person, Rodney had great passion and energy for life. He was extraordinarily fit and disciplined and as a student would often run to University when he could not afford transport. He would talk for hours about architecture and had the patience and kindness to help me with martial arts training – in this he was a gifted teacher. His conversations were often esoteric and he would explore all manner of topics. Always positive and smiling he constantly tested himself and always wanted to learn and improve.
He understood and expressed in his work, the unique and wonderful essence of South African culture and was a worthy inaugural Grand Prix winner of the Africa Architecture Award for the Umkhumbane Museum. His inclusive approach to architecture was about dialog, about place and earth and about people – drawing on his passion for music, for him it was polyrhythmic like song. He saw architecture as layered, complex and inspiring – just as he was.”
Basil Vogas also in our class goes on from Perth Australia, sent to me at 1.30 this morning:-
“I have really fond memories of everyone in our time at Uni together from ’83 to ’88 but none more so than Rodney. Rodney and I were close while at Uni. From first year he used to take me to the sports centre almost every day to ‘train’ me in Tai Chi and karate. But not many of the rest of the archi students knew that, out of Uni Rodney dedicated his time to teaching karate to disadvantaged kids in his community. He had the physical skill to take on anyone yet he was softly spoken, unassuming and the most generous person I knew. As far as I remember he continued to serve his community long after Uni. When I think back to my 21st birthday which many of our class attended the most vivid memory is of Rodney “breakdancing” like one of the best and finishing with a spin on his head. (I think I have a photo!) I’ve always been proud to hear of the achievements of my class mates since we went our own ways after Uni and Rodney’s professional success was really well deserved. Rodney, thanks for making time for me and our time together. “
After that 21st, I remember Rodney coming to me on the Monday following that party held in the Greek Community Hall in Umbilo where it used to be and saying to me “Hey Rubes these Greek people seriously don’t like plates!”
Kevin Bingham the past president of SAIA as well as another member of that Class of ’88 would go on to say:-
Rodney's early career as an architect was also not without struggle. His job with VARA didn’t end well. He was fired together with Karuni not for any other reason but to make space for returning people from Europe!! Yes that was the state of architecture practice at the time. I have always had a lot of respect for Mohideen Gafoor and it was he who took them both on in his practice. Black architects really had to try and perform just so much harder to prove themselves. We carried our humiliation and disappointments and shouldered and soldiered on. It is because of this that our generation expected a lot more from black architects and black students than we do with others. I for one have been challenged by black junior colleagues about this behaviour on more than one occasion. Rodney and I spoke about this often. We had to go that extra distance during apartheid and then had the looks and sniggers from those that refused to believe our skills during democracy. We during this time had to be the recipients of BEE because it could never ever be our skills!!!
Karuni Naidoo would say today, and I quote:-
“I recall Rodney from the 7th level of Dennis Shepstone building in the early 1980’s in Japanese wooden sandals; breakdancing with his brother Derek in Greenwood Park at the launch of the Redhill Youth Movement (RHYTHM); and then again on his bicycle during our final years of architecture. We worked together at MA Gafoor Architects, and then at VARA Architects in 1991 where we would both suffer the indignity of being the only two black architects to be fired at a whim. We resolved never to work for anyone after that, even if that meant garages and boundary walls.
I was fortunate to have shared the CNN Architects creative space with Rodney and Sharendra since 1995 when we three started practice with one appointment from Public Works, in a Young & Satharia back office with donated furniture and
equipment from Ruben Reddy. Little paid work, no salary, but endless creative energy, enthusiasm and passion for architecture. Rodney ensured that we entered every architectural competition, and we would go on to win many of these. Freehand sketches, late nights, Feng shui, chocochinos, art, teamwork, music, poetry, arguments, bunny chows, tai chi, books, takeaways, balsa wood models, karate, hangovers, reams of bumf, good days and bad days.
We started practice later than most, and battled to maintain balance in other areas of our lives. We took on family responsibilities. We would succeed in some areas of our lives, but be messy with the others. Unlike our architecture, our lives would be imperfect or flawed.
We would grow in our own creative directions after our partnership ended in 2008.
To Rodney: I am all the better for having had you as a friend and business partner. I thank you, and I forgive you and release you. Go in peace.”
Sharendra Naidoo would say from London:-
“I have known Rodney for the past 35 years both as a friend and a business partner. Rodney’s love for life, sports and the arts was evident in his design style and the way he lived his life. It is an incredibly sad and immeasurable loss to those who were fortunate enough to have known him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. RIP dear old friend.”
Rodney was incredible and passionate about his methods of engagement. His projects were always collaborative. Everyone contributed to its making and in his early practice life he was engaged by the Department of Economic Affairs and Tourism in KZN on some projects in northern KZN.
Rohan Persad, an advisor to the MEC at the time makes this statement:-
“I had the privilege of working with Rodney Choromanski in 1996 while working for the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism. A difficult period of our early democratic transition for Kwazulu Natal as we tried, as democrats to initiate delivery projects in communities. Rodney was appointed as professional support to a small team of government officials to develop the SHU SHU and Lilani hot springs in northern KwaZulu-Natal. With his inimitable Choromanski style, Rodney just grabbed the bulls by the horns and drove the project with the local community. He designed the project with them, secured their participation in the identification of local materials, construction, operations and maintenance processes. He disarmed all the old bureaucratic officials by inviting them after the first meeting to the local tavern where he proceeded to have a couple of drinks, then whipped out his guitar and performed which only Rodney could do. A typical example of the Rodney I came to know and respect. We will miss your boundless energy, creative and innovative mind and most importantly, a character not bound by his ego. This set him apart in his profession. Rest in Peace bro!”
Then came the heady heights of major competition winning:-
Rodney led the design team of CNN, i3LAB and Reynolds Architects in the Pan African Parliament Competition and won it. Sadly this continental wide competition was court up in the politics of South Africa. It was unrealised and instead the Chinese have constructed a far from appropriate building in Addis Ababa for its purpose. A lost opportunity if ever there was one. And nobody seems to care right now.
The national competition to win this Umkhumbane Museum will be spoken of for years to come. Generations will go through this building and experience its force and presence. It is a representation of the highest aesthetic and cognitive experience in a built form. A completeness of research, sound thinking, evocative detailing, sensory perception and poetic wholeness.
When he won this award an expert was parachuted in to help. Why?
When I asked the late Jeremy Rose why he was, he was more embarrassed than frank. Was it that shocking that someone so left field could dare to win? Is it that unbelievable? But then it all adds up sadly!
I have asked Luyanda Mphalwa soon to be President of SAIA to also help us describe Rodney’s contribution and he says :-
“It is a very difficult and sad experience to lose a colleague, fellow architect and a great person at such a young age. This untimely loss will take time to sink in, but today we have to pay tribute to a celebrated and esteemed architect who at this period in his professional life was starting to reach his true potential. One thing about Rodney, is that you could not place him in the 'traditional definition and appearance' of an Architect as we know it! Always casual, in a t-shirt and jeans, but in black, which is the closest to the architects label, you would probably mistake him for a musician, artist, sportsman, which he also was. Yet he lived, spoke and created Architecture, in the most passionate way. Although I never worked with him, I had the experience of listening to him speak about his work, most recently at the #CoCreate festival in Cape Town in Feb 2018 on the theme, "Beyond the Crisis". We shared a discussion platform where he articulated the challenges and complexity of our built environment in the admirable manner. I am grateful I had this opportunity to witness his depth of architectural thought which he expressed in a different way to most of us. He was never the one to conform and be ordinary...he always had a distinctly questioning mind and approach. The Architectural profession and SAIA has lost an incredibly creative human being, an architectural professional who never allowed any obstacles stand on his way. We send our heartfelt and most sincere condolences to his family and colleagues in the KZNIA. Hamba Kahle Rodney, your legacy will live on.”
So finally how then is it possible that this man could win the Grand Prix Africa Architecture Award which essentially means the overall award for the continent and yet never win an award for architecture from both the regional institute and the national institute other than
for a tower on the Point? Is there some other criteria that judges of architecture use that some of us are unaware of?
It is inconceivable that one so brilliant will have to spend the last period of his life without projects to demonstrate that talent. It is also unconscionable that the gatekeepers of these projects both in the private and public sectors could not themselves provide him with the opportunity after recognising his uniqueness by engaging Rodney in commissions. Worse still were those colleagues of his who owed him fees for extended periods thus crippling his business. He had no work and nobody seemed to care! Yet it was him that brought to his proud clients these pieces of delight. We need to all share in that guilt.
Just when is our government at all levels going to realise the pain that some of our built environment professions have to endure. We are losing engineers and architects all because we won’t be brave to make decisions or are controlled by the burden of bureaucratic supply chain management or will not do anything because you are being watched. Yes you should be watched and held accountable. But is that so extraordinary to our collective consciousness and foreign to our DNA that it paralyses us so completely?
We have not treated this man with the respect he needed. We allowed him to be reduced to that same person he was 30 years ago. Being reliant on his family for help AND that after being an award winner. Why would a normal fit person push himself through an exercise regimen to the state of death? We should all be ashamed. Storm I am so sorry young man, we failed your dad. We truly did. You will miss him dearly and hopefully his memory and his built legacy will endure you through the rest of your life. Walk into this space when you want to have a conversation with him. I am sure he would be listening
For the rest of us Yeats said and I use some licence:-
“Things did fall apart and the centre simply didn’t hold”
I am so sorry Rodney. I really and truly am.
Deborah sent me this last night and some our age might recognise it from that song.
I end with these……
“Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me and how you suffered for your sanity and how you tried to set them free they would not listen, they're not listening still Perhaps they never will”
Thank you all for listening.
There has been an outpouring of grief from colleagues across the world and I ask your indulgence to read these.
Sent this prose from Mexico
Neil Young, Kurt Cobain kept unkempt hair
a kind of Redhill stalk for a walk
a smile more often than words
a morning to Addington beach
a panel van or bakkie
a team of soccer children
he said it was what he did on the weekend
Friday or Saturday night
The Chairman on Mahatma Gandhi
setting up the band at the end of the courtyard then the Salsa starts
the Cuba beat,
the sexy sound,
when all there is, is pure life
where real living is celebration of the ordinary
one minute being in this living
like it will last forever
like a river will always flow
like the sun will always only rise
the next minute
the frail nature of transience
the exquisite beauty of the flower
that blooms for just one night
and then blooms forever
inside us all”
Mark Damant Class of ‘88 sent this from Brisbane Australia
“Reflecting on life at these moments, one can recognise when a life has been well lived.
I knew Rodney at university studying architecture.
He was different....Wild in thought and process...A unique aesthetic vision and approach to architecture and placemaking...he was also a gentle soul who was clearly going to do it on his own terms.
Rodney was a free spirit with outrageous physical ability...A glint in his eye...always smiling....always optimistic...and completely certain of who he was and his place in the world
I fell into the world and reconnected accidentally a few years ago
Bang.....There he was
That Long shaggy rock star hair
The identical cheeky smile
This amazing aura radiated from every pore of his body. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Rodney was a massively successful human being who made a valuable contribution to his communities, the culture of architecture, his friends and his family.
You will be sorely missed Rodney, but know that we will celebrate and remember your life...a life lived properly.
I am sincerely grateful to have known you.”
From Steve Millier Class of ‘88
“Rodney will be remembered to me and to our colleagues of the ‘88 class as a fellow fresh thinking energetic, incredibly supple, healthy living student bursting with talent.
Thirty years on I remember the impression he made, a man modest yet quietly confident, passionately following his love of martial arts, his abundant energy, always positive and always wearing a big broad smile, his warmth and love of life evident to all but above all it is his unique generosity, generosity with his time, generosity with his attention and his kindness that I will remembered Rodney for. To me, and all those lives you have touched Rodney, you will leave a huge void and be sadly missed, go in peace my friend and thank you for being a bright guiding star for my journey and those around you. Shake things up …..up there won’t you?“
Michael Douglas says;-
“Your deeply dark African gypsy soul
Your blood flowed with the spirit of African soil
you toiled with passion
you avoided the easy road of commercialism
You have left your mark on the Durban domain
Your musical love was for ever changing seeking
Like the gypsy spirit you be
Talented sensitive forever smiling
You wonderful soul
Always a friend
Never a sad or bad word
Make love to the gods
Fly spirit fly”
Nina Saunders who worked closely with Rodney on this building who could be here today sent this:-
“Rod, you did human so well.
You did super-human even better.
You came in with your very own lode star and a pretty big script. And you did that script justice. Helped by a super-sized dose of creative.
My strongest sense of you was your unfailing belief that good wins the day:
good ideas, good design, good intention, good connection, good vibes, good humour, good heart......
And your relentlessness until it did.
You were brave, passionate, generous and kind. Catch you at the big gig in the sky, Rod. You made this gig so much more fun.”