Marian Laserson (nee Spilkin) architect, town planner, champion of wetlands and heritage campaigner passed away on 10 July at the Morningside Clinic of the Covid-19 Virus.
Marian was born in 1936, the daughter of Joseph and Rachel Spilkin. Her father was a Johannesburg civil and structural engineer whose practice was very involved in many of the buildings in the city. He retired at age 85. He clearly sparked an interest in his daughter in engineering and building technology. From her mother, Marian drew her social activism, as Rachel was politically active in the Progressive Party.
At over the age of 80, Marian was still a practicing professional architect and activist. She was a person of considerable intellect but her human touch, her sense of humour and her service ethic were her outstanding traits. Marian was an active campaigner in town planning and urban regeneration across a wide swathe of the north east of Johannesburg.
Her interests were varied. She was someone who knew an enormous amount about city by laws, routes through the inner workings of the city, how to lodge objections (which she often did on behalf of public interest groups). Her advice was concise and practical and she always followed up with an email to explain exactly what we needed to do to fight a heritage case.
Marian was an authority on water matters and the conservation of wetlands. She supported David Bagg and the Huddle Park fight to save the golf course and its subsequent development into a unique recreational facility that combines golf, cycling, walking, dog walking and aerobics. Marian believed in the link between wetlands, ecology, biodiversity, wildlife and a green belt. Huddle Park today is a tribute to her and David Bagg’s tenacity in the face of a city keen to sell off assets and large scale developers who wanted to build. A third of Huddle Park was sold but two thirds saved for posterity as a precious city green space. Marian also kept a close eye on the rehabilitation of the Bruma Lake. She was keenly interested and able to offer technical advice on the Orange Grove Waterfall and the long term project to restore this site. This campaign is ongoing. I loved it when she sent me maps of the storm water drain system - who else but Marian would get excited about such essential engineering technicalities and underground water flows.
Old postcard of the Orange Grove Waterfall
Marian fought to save the graves at the old Rietfontein Hospital in the face of large-scale new township development, and in this she defended the preservation of medical history. She was never afraid to voice a strong opinion about planning issues, but she also saw opportunities to create new green urban spaces, for example, around Paterson Park. She sought to integrate architecture, social theory and compatible property development. She was a woman who lived her beliefs and was an inspiration to so many friends and colleagues.
Old graves at Rietfontein (Sarah Welham)
Marian grew up in Johannesburg and matriculated in 1952 at 16 years old at Johannesburg Girls High School (Barnato Park). She studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and first completed a BA degree in the fifties. She returned to Wits in 1969 to study architecture and sociology. Marian was awarded a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1975.
Marian started her career at the University of the Witwatersrand when she took up a position of Lecturer in the Department of Building Management between 1973 and 1974 and influenced the career trajectory of Franco Frescura and he warmly pays tribute to Marian.
Great Hall at Wits (The Heritage Portal)
She then joined the Department of Town Planning of the Johannesburg municipality and served as Development Control Officer and Social Research from 1975 to 1982.
She did not pursue architectural design in a significant way, but opted for a career in teaching. Between 1985 and 2005 she worked as a lecturer at the Technikon Witwatersrand in the departments of Architecture and Management and Quantity Surveying. Here her principal specialization was in construction technology. She prompted architectural technology as an equal field to design; this was an innovation then when design took precedence over construction. She was right, in that quality design had to be grounded in sound engineering functionality. She was initially a full time lecturer but became part time after 1992 as she established her own professional architectural practice and offered a service in preparing town planning applications, handling rezoning and obtaining consent use.
Her community activism saw her join the City’s Ward 73 Committee with the portfolio of Urban, Management and Development Control, including heritage, storm water, groundwater and rivers. This was where her expertise and her passion for water management married happily.
She was a member of the Orange Grove Residents Association (OGRA) committee for some 25 years and Roger Chadwick speaks highly of her mentorship. She recently served as the Vice Chairperson of the OGRA. It is not surprising that her advice was sought by other Residents associations on land use and building regulations. She was actively involved in the development and execution of the Paterson Park Precinct Plan.
Tributes for Marian have been written by four Johannesburg City Councillors who came to value her input and expertise.
In heritage work, Marian was a consistent member of the Joint Plans Committee East of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation since its inception and this committee will sorely miss her informed contributions. Andre Marais has written a warm tribute.
Marian was active on the Gauteng Wetland Forum and the Jukskei Forum, which fought hard to protect the environment and rivers.
In fact throughout her life Marian was “a joiner” - all the many societies she joined show her breadth of interests and the depth of her curiosity about life. Her interests went beyond interest to sustained passion. Marian was even a volunteer firefighter.
Marian married Bob Lurie in 1960. He died in May 1966 in a boat related accident while they were on a scuba diving trip in a remote area in Mozambique. She had a 16 month old son (Marc) and was 3 months pregnant with her second son (Keith) at the time of this tragedy. Marian undertook the task of bringing up her two boys and the tribute by her son Keith reveals how much she was admired and loved by her sons. She was always very capable and independent. When people used to ask her ‘Why don't you marry again?’, she would reply "I don’t need a husband, I need a wife”.
In 1980, Marian married Jack Laserson, an optometrist. He was an active Rotarian and president of his club at various times. Jack also served as president of the optometric association and the Automobile Association. Marian could not stand the idea of being a "Rotary Anne" and she became one of the first batch of female Rotarians in 1989 (she was also the first female Rotary chair in South Africa). Marian was a Rotarian of 23 years. It was another dimension of her commitment to community service and desire to improve the lives of people from all walks of life. Jack Laserson died in 2014. Marian and Jack enjoyed a number of holiday homes in Plettenberg Bay (where her son Keith lives) and would visit the coastal town two or three times a year. While Jack played bowls and went to the beach, Marian would attend local council meetings and get involved with objections to unreasonable development proposals. This was so typically Marian, even a holiday was a working opportunity. They were both active members of the Plett Bird Club and would always attend Rotary meetings there.
Marian was one of the founders of the SA Institute of Architectural Technologists and was the first architect who registered as a member. In 2019 the Institute awarded Marian its life-time achiever award.
Marian is survived by her two sons, Keith and Marc and four grandchildren. Marc emigrated to Denmark three years ago.
- Keith Lurie - Marian’s son: "Heartfelt thank you to everyone that has sent condolences. My mother was a really special person who meant so much to so many. This world is crazy right now, so in a year, on 10 July 2021 we will have a memorial, and celebration of her life. It will be in Johannesburg, the city that she pretty much dedicated her life to improving. Her impact on town planning and Joburg municipality in the 70's, the political struggle. A volunteer firefighter, dancer, the Tree Society, Archaeological Society, Wildlife Society, even got into CB radio, all while bringing up 2 little boys, and supporting and encouraging them in whatever they chose to do. Dogs, cats, rats, snakes, guinea pigs, an Indian minor called "Major". Wits University, Wits Technicon, hundreds of architects, technologists, builders, quantity surveyors and firefighters that she taught in the 80's and 90's. The Association for Rational Inquiry into Paranormal Claims. The Abortion Reform Action Group. The first female Rotary president. Birding, Sandringham Residents, Orange Grove residents, Ward committees. Advising so many city Councillors over the years. Dependable Strengths organization, The Head League, The Wetland forum, Protecting the grasslands, Houghton waterfall, Patterson Park, Rietfontein, Huddle Park, Linksfield Ridge, Heritage, JPC. SA Institute of Architectural Technologists - lifetime achievement award. This is just touching on all she was actively involved in, I've left a lot out because it's impossible to briefly summarize such a full life. Dynamite in a small package, As tiny as her feet were, I could never fill her shoes, but am really proud to walk in her footsteps."
- Flo Bird - Founder of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation: "Marian was a rock in the cause of heritage. She lived a gallant life with vigour and concern for causes about which she was always passionate. She did not deserve Covid 19."
- Joy Campkin-Smith: "Our most chatty committee member. I hope we honour her by naming a venue at Paterson Park or at Rietfontein in her honour. It would be really appropriate."
- Roger Chadwick - Chair of Orange Grove Residence Association: "Marian was a unique personality and constant companion with me and OGRA. From my first real engagement with her over Paterson Park in 2000 to our interaction with almost all City of Johannesburg departments over the years she was my mentor on all aspects of land use issues. Over the years Marian helped everyone regardless of where they lived. For Marian there were no borders. I know that she cannot be replaced because no one will ever be able to fill the void that has been created by her passing . I celebrate the life of a most special person and community activist of glowing proportion."
- Councillor David Fisher Ward 74: "Marian will be remembered by our community for her impactful and influential contributions to many issues. She tirelessly and freely shared her store of solid knowledge tempered with a practical perspective for the benefit of the community."
- Franco Frescura - Professor of Architecture, and Author, University of KZN: "I knew Marian Laserson I first met Marian in 1974 upon my return to academia following my rustication. I never did manage to pass Physics in my second year of studies and when the Department replaced this plague with a course called Building Science, Marian became one of my lecturers. I did not know it at the time but the Dean, Prof Doug Calderwood, had quietly informed her that I was a basic pain in the fundament and that it would be her task to get me through this course. Marian not only got me to do enough work to pass, but, strangely enough it was thanks to her efforts that I eventually entered a life in academia. One of the courses she taught was Social Surveys, and although I had worked out the ethical implications of Pilot Surveys on my own, it was thanks to her that I realized that life as an architect could be more fun than doing window details. It was due to Marian also that my first major research project was a study of the social and economic impact of demolitions in Doornfontein and New Doornfontein, which introduced me to the world of heritage and historical research. I am sorry Marian is gone. I think that without her, life in Jozi has just become a little less exciting. Hamba kahle, old friend, I seem to be saying this a lot, nowadays."
- Councillor Lionel Greenberg Ward 72: "Our Dear Marian was such an inspiration to me and our family. Every time I had the occasion to meet her she as always eager and willing to share her ocean of knowledge and fulfil her civic role. Always doing what was morally right. I feel as a community we need to pick up where Marian left off and in her honour keep her “fight” alive."
- Ilan Guest - Chairperson Victoria & Orange Grove West Residents Association: "It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to Marian. Her passing is a major loss for the City, the Ward, all the Residents Associations to which she volunteered her expertise. We will remember Marian with great appreciation for her many years of diligent community service. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this difficult time.
- Lilian Guest: "What an incredible loss for us all, she was in a league of her own and will be missed terribly. I am heartbroken."
- Marcus Holmes - Architect: "A woman of passion and conviction! A dear friend and colleague of many years. RIP Marian - I consider it an honour to have known you."
- Councillor Eleanor Huggett Ward 73: "When I became Cllr of Ward 73 in April 2017, Marian took me under her wing, readily giving of her time and expertise. She assisted me and the residents with endless patience. I was constantly amazed by her depth of knowledge and was almost in daily contact with her as she guided and mentored me. The Residents of Ward 73 have lost their Champion and Protector. She was an enormous asset on the Paterson Park Steering Committee and her expertise was invaluable to all concerned. Her vigilance regarding the rights of all never waned. She was asked recently if she had any allergies. She replied Racism and Discrimination. She had a sharp wit and a marvellous sense of humour. Her loss to Ward 73 and Johannesburg as a whole is immeasurable. On a personal level, I have lost a very, very dear friend. Thank you Marian. I send heartfelt condolences to her two sons."
- Councillor Jill Humphreys: "Just unthinkable and devastating. Most enormous loss for the community. Sad, sad day. RIP precious soul. Your legacy will remain in our hearts and her amazing work.
- Venita Masisi - Community Leader & Member of Paterson Park Steering Committee. Marian was a mentor, motivator and a very powerful and intelligent woman. A woman with a beautiful heart, always teaching, uplifting and caring for her community.
- Andre Pierre Marais - Upper Houghton Residents Association and Trustee of Johannesburg Heritage Foundation: "Marian Laserson is one of those rare members of society who contributed selflessly to the betterment of the community she lived in. Never shy of a cause, Marian would jump in and offer her learned and sage advice whenever requested. In this regard Marian had a work ethic from a bygone era and could always be relied upon to be there when needed. In this time when Civil Society is being challenged at every corner, it is sad to lose one of our City's doyens to the cause. Marian, your commitment, efforts and big smile will be hugely missed. You truly rocked up for your City to the end. RIP Marian!"
- Brett McDougall - Chairperson of NORA and past chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation: "Few possessed Marian’s impressive range of knowledge and experience and none were as generous in sharing it for the benefit of our area. She will be missed."
- Kathy Munro - Chairperson, Johannesburg Heritage Foundation: "Marian was a committed lively, knowledgeable, constant member of the JHF Joint Plans East committee. Her views were worth hearing and she leaves a great hole. Marian was someone who gave freely of her architectural knowledge, her town planning experience and was always interested in local changes and community affairs. She readily gave me advice on diverse subjects such as City of Johannesburg planning laws, the procedures to be adopted for changes to building, or how to handle applications for rezoning. Her letters of objection were models. She will be much missed."
- Gabrielle Ozysnski - Yeoville Activist: Marian was such an inspiration. Her dedication to the city, her energy, her knowledge, will be sorely missed. I used to bump into her at the Spar and we'd chat for ages, turning a mundane shopping trip for me, into an inspiring occasion. I'd leave feeling reassured and energised that we had such a determined, knowledgeable person on our side. A real loss. RIP Marian and condolences to all family, friends and colleagues.
- Isabella Pingle - Kensington Heritage Trust: Marian spent endless time assisting me with Kensington, at site meetings and at tribunals. She was always a call away for any advice on heritage and town planning matters. Her passion, commitment and knowledge in town planning has left a void. RIP dear Friend”
- Markus Scheuermaier - Chairperson of the iHlathi Conservancy: "Marian helped found iHlathi, the Melrose-Birdhaven Conservancy, in 2014. She was passionate about our environment, our heritage and our city - she will be much missed."
- Heather Trumble - Assistant Director Building Development Management, City of Johannesburg: "Marian was a lecturer in the school of architecture at the Witwatersrand Technikon laterthe University of Johannesburg. She was a strong supporter of the technical architectural students and planted the seed that an institute be formed for the technologist and with Harry Blager the head of the Architectural school and supported the formation of the South African Institute for Architectural Technologists. Lulu Scott formed the organization in 1987 and got Marian to join. She was the first architect to join the voluntary organization of Technologist. Marian continued to do lectures for the Institute for continued professional development, and gave guidance support and knowledge to the members of the institute. She was a lifelong student and continued to research and then in turn passed on her knowledge to students, professionals and community members who were interested to learn. I had the privilege of meeting her as a student in the early 1980s and later with her community work at the Johannesburg city council where we worked together to help the community sort out various issues of problems on their properties. I nominated Marion for the Life time achievement award of the SA Institute of Architectural Technology as she had given so much to the organization which has grown and flourished and has made an impact on the Architectural profession. Marian was my mentor, and dear friend. I will miss her very much.
- Colin Wasserfall - Lower Houghton Residents Association and CPF Executive Chair: "It will always feel she has gone too soon. We had so much more to achieve together. We need to name a street or hall at the Paterson Park Recreation Centre after her."
- Natalie Webb - Chairperson Lower Houghton Residents Association: "Marian lived her life fearlessly. The last time I saw her she shared such wonderful stories of COJ in the old and current days. Her knowledge was legendary and I think of her with gratitude and a huge sense of loss."