BArch 1992 (Pretoria) - Final design title: UNISA Skool vir Bedryfsleiding
Born in Pretoria on summer solstice, 22 December in 1965 to a second generation South African father (Peter William Comrie) of Scottish decent and a Dutch immigrant mother (Johanna van den Berg). Brother of landscape architect Anton COMRIE (partner in GREEN INC LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS, Johannesburg), graphic designer Carina Comrie (principal of Bon Bon Graphic Design, Johannesburg) and civil engineer Werner COMRIE (director of AURECON).
He enrolled at the Pretoria School of Architecture in 1986 and graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree with distinction in 1991. Here he was influenced most by the intellectual rigor of Gus GERNECKE, Roger FISHER, Schalk LE ROUX and Piet DE BEER. With the support and encouragement of LE ROUX and FISHER he interrupted his undergraduate studies in 1989 and spent a year out working in the London office of Michael Haskoll. He used this phase of his early professional development to travel widely in Europe and to broaden his frame of reference. His interest in urban design was greatly influenced by this time spent abroad and subsequently by an inspiring seminar on the competition winning entry for the redevelopment of Newtown, Johannesburg presented by Erky WOOD of GAPP Architects and Urban Designers at the University of Pretoria in 1990. During his travels abroad he also developed a unique and specific free hand drawing technique which he would later use to great effect in rapidly communicating design ideas. He documented the value of developing this technique in the article Beds are Better in France.
After graduating in the midst of an economic recession in 1991 he spent a short period working for BOOGERTMAN KRIGE BLIGNAUT Architects when that practice (as BOOGERTMAN & PARTNERS, now the largest in Africa) was still only a handful of people and then joining Erhard ROXIN Architects in Swakopmund, Namibia in June 1992. Despite the remoteness, Namibia proved to be an ideal learning school. It provided the ideal environment for a young architect to come to grips with the execution of the design of a large building on a difficult site. Almost immediately after landing in Namibia he won first prize in a competition for the design of a corporate head office building in Windhoek. This gave him greater responsibility than would have been possible at his age in a mainstream urban practice. The principal adjudicator was Joze FORJAZ who would - some years later - again be part of the adjudicating team for his competition winning entry for the Offices of the Premier of the Eastern Cape (2009). Most of the construction drawings for this substantial Windhoek building were still done by hand on tracing film in Roxin’s small, craft oriented and remote practice where the entire team dedicated to this project totaled two people. The Swabou Building, as it was called, was completed in 1994 and subsequently won a Namibian Institute of Merit Award in 1995. This was the beginning of a career which continued to be built essentially around the winning of substantial commissions through design competitions and on merit rather than through promoting practice size, pursuing dedicated marketing or nurturing any specific business networks.
He was invited to participate in the 50 year Anniversary of the University of Pretoria School of Architecture Alumni Exhibition held at the Pretoria Art Gallery on 7-25 July 1993.
In 1994 he returned to South Africa to fulfill his ambition to study urban design. He enrolled at Wits while working part time for TALJAARD CARTER ARCHITECTS in Johannesburg and completing his degree under the mentorship of Erky WOOD in 1995. Here he won a second national/open design competition within the space of the first two years in practice. The design was for the PFG Glass Centre in Midrand which, because of the country being in the midst of a recession as well as the competition having a particularly seductive brief, attracted 121 entries. The completed building subsequently won an Award of Merit from the South African Institute of Architects in 1995. The sculptural and relatively small building was demolished in 2004 to make way for the current commercial office building which fully utilized the bulk potential of the site. (See obituary for the Glass Centre by Alan LIPMAN: "Comrie's swashbuckling cubist essay in sheet glass bites the dust" Sunday Independent April 23, 2006). Full article with record of building PFG Glass Centre.
After obtaining his Master of Urban Design degree he began teaching at the University of Pretoria in 1996 while simultaneously establishing a one man practice. The combination of teaching and practice remains a constant feature of a career built on a curiosity of how people use and appreciate space in different contexts over extended periods of time.
In 1998 he was first introduced to Chris WILKINSON, with whom he would soon establish a partnership. They decided to collaborate in preparing an entry for a competition for the proposed Legislature Buildings for the Northern Cape. They had both been top of their class at their respective universities during the same year of graduation in 1991. WILKINSON proceeded to win the Corobrik National Architecture Student of the Year Prize against finalists from all six South African architecture schools. Their passion for design gave rise to a vigorous internal debate. They also actively collaborated with the architect ‘Ora JOUBERT on a number of projects before she took up the chair of architecture at The University of the Free State School of Architecture in 1999. For a while the practice was based in the studio Ora had designed for herself in Clydesdale, Pretoria and which was left vacant because of her temporary relocation to Bloemfontein. The small, studio type practice of COMRIE AND WILKINSON existed loosely as an association from 1998-2000 staffed mostly by year out students and was later formalized after the winning of a design competition for an office building at Melrose Arch. During this period COMRIE was also invited to collaborate with TALJAARD CARTER ARCHITECTS (his previous employers) to produce the competition winning entry for the design of the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Illovo, which was completed in 2000. With these two substantial commissions the practice was well on its way. In 2000 COMRIE’s early work was first exposed to an international audience through Taschen Books’ 40 architects under 40 (with ‘Ora JOUBERT) and Wallpaper Magazines’ international "who to use list".
In 2000 his career changed direction after winning a British Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue further urban design studies in the United Kingdom. Prof Alan LIPMAN (Emeritus professor of the University of Wales) under who Comrie had studied urban design at Wits in the period 1995/1996 was pivotal in providing a reference that would secure a scholarship to study first at the Joint Centre for Urban Design in Oxford and then at the University of Greenwich in London. During his time in the UK he maintained contact with his office in South Africa and continued to provide input into the design of projects such as a proposed visitors' centre at the Union Buildings (unbuilt) and the highly acclaimed Chapel of Light in Vanderbijlpark. During his studies he embarked on field trips to Peru, Australia and Malaysia and tutored in the studio of the post graduate urban design course at the Joint Centre for Urban Design in Oxford. Here he also guest edited an issue of the journal Urban Design International which exposed an international readership to the post apartheid urban design debate in South Africa.
He obtained a PhD in urban design from the University of Greenwich in 2003 and then immediately returned to South Africa. After living in Oxford and London and having been consumed by all things urban for three years he intuitively missed the dense and walkable urbanism of Europe and sought opportunities to relocate to Cape Town with its historic layering and well functioning inner city. Here he first joined STAUCH VORSTER Architects as urban design director before soon establishing a branch office of COMRIE + WILKINSON in 2006.
Shortly after establishing the Cape Town branch of COMRIE + WILKINSON the practice was commissioned to design phase 2 of the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg, which was completed in 2008. COMRIE had developed a creative and enjoyable working relationship with Professor Nick Binedell, the director of GIBS during the design of phase 1 which resulted in him being invited back to design phase 2 (and more recently phase 3) from his new base in Cape Town.
The establishment of the Cape Town office was soon followed by a winning bid for the urban design and architecture of the 2010 World Cup Stadium in Cape Town. COMRIE + WILKINSON became lead urban designers as well as part of the architecture joint venture made up of six local and global practices. COMRIE + WILKINSON also became a key member of the team for the redevelopment of the Cape Town Station during the same time as the construction of the stadium.
Because of specialism in urban design and COMRIE’s growing reputation as an urban designer through active involvement in practice, the Cape Town office has increasingly been drawn towards urban design rather than architecture work and is now regularly invited to become part of larger teams for complex projects that require well considered strategies for urban integration, sustainability and contextual fit.
Despite the increased leaning towards urban design, he has remained passionate about the crafting of buildings and not least at the scale of the small family house such as the House at Johannesdal (2009) and House Coetzee (2010) at Big Bay. This philosophy is founded on the belief that the knowledge of urban design is influential in making better, context specific buildings that function well at various scales and over longer periods of time. He now unambiguously sides with the ‘quiet revolution’ initiated by Luis Barragán and Carlo Scarpa and followed with clarity and conviction by only a handful of designers such as Charles Correa and Álvaro Siza Vieira who show very little interest in how and where their designs are published as singular, self-serving objects. Of far greater concern is the extent to which spaces in and around buildings evolve, mature and find different uses over time. The three integrated phases of the Gordon Institute of Business Science that were designed and built over fourteen years (1998– 2012) and the winning design in a national competition for the Offices of the Premier of the Eastern Cape (2009) demonstrate this considered leaning towards place making rather than object making approach.
By 2010 the two founding partners of COMRIE + WILKINSON had acknowledged the difficulties of working efficiently from offices in cities that were remote from each other. Chris Wilkinson thus established Wilkinson Architects in Pretoria after winning the Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance Competition, whilst Henri Comrie continued to practice as Comrie Wilkinson (Cape) Architects and Urban Designers. After successful completion of the 2010 World Cup related projects, Henri Comrie spent a sabbatical year in London working with Pedro ROOS at Paul Davis and Partners and travelling broadly.
In 2012 he returned to Cape Town to complete phase 3 of the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg and was in the same year appointed associate professor and chair of the Master of City Planning and Urban Design Programme at the University of Cape Town.
In October 2013 Henri Comrie's practice, COMRIE + WILKINSON ARCHITECTS AND URBAN DESIGNERS - CAPE, merged with Rudi BOTHA's URBAN STUDIO to form URBA ARCHITECTS AND URBAN DESIGNERS after winning an open (anonymously adjudicated) competition for a building on the campus of the newly established Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley and collaborating successfully on an urban design project in northern Mozambique with ACG ARCHITECTS. URBA has four partners, with Deon VAN ZYL and Amalie COMRIE being co-founding partners.