Part of the generation of architects who began their careers in London at the end of the Second World War, Julian Sofaer, who has died aged 92, was highly praised for his community, synagogue and college designs. An art lover attracted to the Italian Renaissance, Sofaer preferred to work alone and was never tempted to expand his office to take on work for which he could not personally be in charge.
A designer obsessed with form and harmony, he disliked Le Corbusier’s use of concrete in the fabric of buildings, maintaining that it had been imposed arbitrarily on the English scene. Brutalism was alien to him, and technical virtuosity insufficient. He delighted in beautiful and life-enhancing buildings that were humanist-inspired. Independent minded, he rejected fashionable movements in architecture.
Sofaer compared a building to a musical instrument. His friend, the passionately musical art-historian Ernst Gombrich, helped him articulate the links between music and architecture through studying classical proportion.
Julian Sofaer, originally named Nessim, was born into Baghdad’s ancient and influential Jewish community, the son of Gurgji Sofer, and Nai’ma Haim. He had two brothers, Yaqoob and David and a sister, Louise. His father died when Julian was two. His maternal grandfather, Abraham Haim, a parliamentarian who represented Iraq at the League of Nations when the country gained independence in 1932, partially filled the vacuum caused by the loss of his father. Haim was one of five people representing the Jewish community to the Palais des Nations in Geneva. His wife, Rachel Haim was the first Iraqi woman to sit in the spectators’ tribune.
After the failure of the German-inspired revolt against British rule in 1941, Arabs and local Bedouin tribes launched a murderous pogrom against the Jewish community, whom they perceived to be pro-British. Sofaer and his sister narrowly escaped death. Having lost everything, they fled with their widowed mother to India (Yaqoob was studying medicine in London). Life in India, though not easy, was at least free from the fear of violence.
In Bombay, Sofaer attended a Jesuit school and then entered the architecture department of the School of Art. His ambition was to become a violinist and he continued to study music alongside his architecture course.
In 1945, he was admitted to the Architectural Association in London. Sofaer had admired England since boyhood and London met his expectations musically and culturally. At the Albert Hall, he attended concerts by the greatest violinists of the time, Heifetz, Huberman,Menuhin,Ida Haendel. Music, he said, put him “in touch with upper spheres where life was beautiful” and provided an escape from post-war London’s gloom, ruins and rationing.
After graduating, Sofaer worked from 1949 to 1955 with Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, a prominent architectural firm which, when Sofaer joined, was preparing for the 1951 Festival of Britain. He assisted in designing the now Grade II-listed Susan Lawrence School at Lansbury, the Dick Sheppard school and other projects.
In 1955, he left to establish his own practice. Six years of struggle followed before significant commissions started coming in, many from the London County Council and the Greater London Council, for whom he built more than 60 schools and colleges, over 1,000 flats and community facilities, old-age homes, private houses, and office buildings. His synagogue and old peoples’ home in Wembley were opened by Prince Philip in 1977.
The extension of the West London Synagogue in Seymour Place with a youth centre and library (1961), with its perfect balance of light and void and its attention to detail won a Civic Trust Award. The architect Alan Higgs praised its design for its “rationality, simplicity, honesty and clarity” and described Sofaer as “a highly principled modernist.”
In 1965, Sofaer was commissioned to design the Hugh Middleton Primary School in Islington. This exemplified Sofaer’s search for harmony, space and light at a time when schools were still being built of impersonal prefabricated components. Roger Thompson wrote in the Architectural Journal: “Sofaer’s obsessive concern with form and harmony is more conducive of felicity than the tenets of the new brutalism.”
In July 1970, the 46 year old Sofaer visited Florence where he met his future wife, the Sicilian-born Italian literature teacher Ada Amodeo, daughter of Tommaso, who had been a socialist dissident under Mussolini. Conversing in French, because Ada spoke no English at the time, the two embarked on a romance around the cities of Siena, Pisa, Lucca and Verona. They married after she converted to Judaism and their daughter, Neema, now a trainee lawyer, was born in November. 1972.
Sofaer’s contribution to modernist architecture continued to attract praise. Meridian West, a private house on a sloping hillside in Greenwich (1963), was designated a Grade II-listed building in 2007. On November 14, 2013, he was one of 24 architects celebrated by English Heritage for having contributed to the rebuilding of post-war London and had their work listed.
Sofaer was a close friend and supporter of the Austrian painter Gerhart Frankl, who fled the Nazis in 1938. On his death in 1965, his widow appointed Sofaer trustee of her husband’s paintings. Sofaer compiled the Oeuvre Catalogue and arranged 30 exhibitions-in London, Austria , Italy and Germany.
Julian Sofaer is survived by his wife Ada, daughter Neema, son-in-law Maurits Kleijnen and three grandchildren.
Julian Sofaer: born August 10, 1924. Died May 30, 2017.