Alan Robert Lipman was born on 6 June, 1925 in Johannesburg into a wealthy Jewish family. After he served in the South African Air Force during World War II, Lipman studied Architecture at the University of Witwatersand. Here, Lipman was inspired by the work of architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. He officially joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1948 because “it was then the only organisation where people from all races came together.”At the time, the CPSA was under the leadership of figureheads such as Moses Kotane, Yusuf Dadoo and JB Marks.
Following his graduation, Lipman spent a year working for the London City Council (London, England) in the architectural division. He then returned to South Africa and worked in Durban for Bernard Jacks Architects until his political involvement began to have a negative impact on his career. With his wife, Beata, Lipman moved back to Johannesburg and worked for Greaterman’s Department Store as their in-house architect. Not only did Lipman design the first Checkers supermarket, he also designed the Port Elizabeth and Welkom Greaterman’s stores. During this time, Lipman also joined the African National Congress (ANC) and took part in some of their militant anti-apartheid activities. Lipman’s arguably greatest contribution occurred during 1955 when he contributed towards the Freedom Charter, with the assistance of his wife, Beata, who wrote out the original charter.
Lipman left the CPSA in 1956 after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. He considered the situation "mad" and realized that the Soviet Union's explanation that they were defending Hungary "was not true." As a result, he joined the ANC after his communist ideas were "suddenly in danger" and joined the ANC because it was regarded as the "'Big Daddy' of the liberation movements."
The Rivonia Trial in 1963 forced Lipman and his wife to leave South Africa and go into exile. He reportedly said that if he had not left the country, then he would have been implicated in the trial and put in jail with other political leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. He later stated that General Johan Coetzee tipped him off that he was on a list of wanted militants and that if he had not been warned by Coetzee, he would not have known to leave the country in time. Although he saved him from imprisonment, Lipman never knew why Coetzee decided to help him. His previous run-in with Coetzee came when he was still known as Detective-Sergeant Coetzee and he searched Lipman’s home in Hillbrow. Lipman and his wife spent the next 27 years in the United Kingdom.
In Britain, Lipman worked for architectural companies, Ove Arup Associates and the modernist practice Fry, Drew, Drake & Lasdun. Lipman then proceeded to take up a post at the University of Wales in Cardiff. He sat on the council for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and further explored the sociological links to his architectural research. Lipman earned the title of Professor Emeritus during his twenty-year tenure at the University. During this time, Lipman did not actively involve himself in the anti-apartheid movement, “Save, of course, meeting exiled friends and acquaintances at parties, often braaivleis evenings in this damp northern climate.”
Prior to his return to South Africa, Lipman and his wife lived in Kitwe, Zambia for six months. He worked at the School of Architecture until the school was closed after a student revolt. Lipman was then asked by his close friend Walter Sisulu, who had been released from Robben Island in October 1989, to return to South Africa.
Lipman honoured this request and moved back to South Africa in 1990. He received a job teaching at the University of Natal (now University of kwaZulu-Natal), and he also lectured in Bloemfontein and Wits University. Due to Lipman’s close relationship with Mandela and Sisulu, him and his wife eventually moved back to Johannesburg. Shortly thereafter, Lipman took on the job as the architectural critic for the Sunday Independent newspaper.
Over the past twenty years, Lipman received numerous architectural awards, including: the South African Institute of Architects Award (SAIA) for Excellence for the Workers Library and Museum in Newtown in 1996, in association with Henry Paine; an SAIA Award for Excellence in 2004 for the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies at Somkhele in Kwa-Zulu Natal, with Steve Kinsler and Derek van Heerden of East Coast Architects; and an SAIA Medal of Distinction in 2004.
During recent years, Lipman became very critical of modern South African architecture and ANC governance. Regarding the former, Lipman said, “I'm deeply, deeply offended by what passes for architecture in South Africa. Not only is this culture decadent, but the society is decadent around it. And, as far as I am concerned, architecture is an outward manifestation of social relations.” Although his criticism was very harsh at times, Lipman claimed this came out of his love and passion for the architecture.
His criticism of the ANC caused him to leave “the ‘official’ liberation movements for personal reasons.” Lipman claimed that he could only trust former President Thabo Mbeki “as far as I can throw this building. I’ve seen too many forced evictions from this supposed ‘world class city’ of ours where those who 'have'* remove those who they say make dirt or who don’t look smart.” Lipman did not believe conditions would improve as power passed to President Jacob Zuma and that it is now time for “a real “People’s National Congress’ - under people’s control - to take back real liberation forward.”
On 27 January 2013, Alan Lipman passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg. He is survived by his two children, his three grandchildren, and his wife of sixty-four years, Beata.
* Quotations added