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Unmasking 'mysterious' architect HJ Reifenberg


Referring to Hugh Pearman's article on Sir George GrenfellBaines (AJ 29.5.03), the 'mysterious HJ Reifenberg' was the consummate Jewish refugee architect - 'like other architects, only more so'.

Born in the 1890s and educated in Berlin, he left a successful practice there as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933. He arrived in London via Palestine before the outbreak of war in 1939.While in Jerusalem, where he practised, he contracted polio on an archaeological dig and was subsequently unable to hold a pencil firmly. To be his assistant was to translate his deckle-edged scrawls into design drawings to his satisfaction. He was very demanding.

The Power and Production Pavilion 1951 was described as being by George Grenfell-Baines in association with HJ Reifenberg. The design was processed from first sketches to completion in Reify's 'home office' in Putney, the wildly enthusiastic Baines paying flying overnight visits from time to time. FJ Samuely was the structural engineer. It was based on the triangle 22:23:8, chosen from a range of whole number triangles produced by Reifenberg's mathematician son. It seemed every detail was a prototype.

Crittalls, Turners Asbestos, Pilkingtons and other manufacturers were falling over themselves to produce special sections under the eagle eye of HJR. Everything was drawn out (often full size) and discussed through the night if necessary.

The 'largest sheet of glass in the world' was an exhibit inside the pavilion, a very long strip of glass and not very impressive.

It was not incorporated in the glazed end to the building. One notable design failure occurred when the huskies, which had to be accommodated in a pit for their rest period from pulling sledges in the Dome of Discovery, jumped straight out. It was too hot and they could jump the rails from a standing start. Seen among all the other colourful 'Modern' pavilions, the Power and Production Pavilion had the look of real quality.

Reifenberg, practising on his own, subsequently built an interesting synagogue in London's Swiss Cottage, for which he also designed all the furniture and artefacts. He also designed a residential home for elderly Jews in Bishops Avenue, north London, for which he received a Civic Trust Award. He died in the late 1960s. He was a man of great ability, great kindness and great charm. Unforgettable.

Ursula Mercer, London SW15

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