Tom Kay Architect

Tom Kay: An Appreciation

By Beatrix Campbell

Roots in Central Europe. Birth in Palestine 1935

Tom’s mother Ellen, a professional photographer, was German-Jewish and his father, Leo Knopfelmacher, Czechoslovak-Jewish. Both were Communist party members, and their relationship and their politics produced a dramatic breach with her wealthy family.

Ellen’s principles defined her as an unyieldingly progressive and activist person. She’d grown up in a privileged milieu, marvelous holidays in the sun (which, tragically bequeathed the skin cancer that afflicted her later life) and governesses – she became multi-lingual worked for her living as a talented photographer, a profession that was interrupted by Hitler’s rise in Germany. During World War II she struggled to make a living working in factories to sustain herself and her children. And after her return to England at the end of the ‘40s she acquired another craft: bookbinding.

Ellen Cramer rejected Judaism – indeed as a teenager she stood up in her synagogue and delivered a public renunciation – became a communist which, one way or another she remained for the rest of her life. Her breach with her wealthy family and, of course, the rise of Nazism in Germany, took her, like millions of her contemporaries, into a life of exile.

Ellen and Leo married in Prague in 1933. At that time she had been photographing pieces collected during an archeological expedition to Ata Kiwan, near Timor in the Pacific. She was expecting to be the on-site photographer on another expedition, but Hitler had by then been elected in Germany: a Jew led the expedition; it was, therefore, stopped.

In 1933 Tom’s older brother Peter was born in Vienna and, pregnant again in 1935, she went to visit Leo’s brother in Haifa in Palestine. It seems that she decided she had to leave Leo. He was a drinker and a gambler, who repeatedly sold off everything the family owned. ‘After selling our household a few times, including her cameras, she told herself that he wasn’t the right person to bring up two kids with,’ Tom recalled. So, in early 1936 his mother left her “intelligent, funny, loveable” – and impossible – husband.

Early years in England 1936-1939

With the help of Leo’s brother she made her way to England where her mother, Sidonie, was now living with her second husband, Hans Feibusch. He was a successful German artist, a Jew. But in 1937 his work was included in the Nazis’ ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ designed to expose modernism. He may have been included more because he was a Jew than a modernist.

In the late ‘30s she maintained an eclectic circle of great friends, she shared a flat with Jomo Kenyatta, then a student at the LSE, later leader of the Kenyan national liberation movement – the Observer newspaper used one of her photographs of Kenyatta in the 1950s.

It was in London that her name changed: the local butcher, apparently, couldn’t manage the family name, Knopfelmacher, and signed Ellen up in his book as Mrs. K The name stuck and though Ellen and Peter’s names were changed by deed poll in the late ‘50s, Tom’s never did. Technically, he remained Knopfelmacher.

When the Second World War broke out, Ellen joined the Land Army, and the children were moved out to Marlborough until fears of a German invasion led to their evacuation to North Wales.

Ellen had been able to work in Bond Street as a photographer and – the boys later discovered – arranged a ‘marriage of convenience’ with a political friend Frank Watson. They didn’t live together but in 1940 met up in Canada. Ellen and the boys made the hazardous Atlantic crossing in a convoy of merchant ships and war ships, which diverted into the South Atlantic to avoid German U Boats. Their ship, the Lady Rodney was attacked; Tom remembered that as ‘the only time in my life I saw Mum cry.’ They stayed in Kingston for several weeks before a banana boat took them north to Canada. The Lady Rodney was sunk on her return trip to England.

Life in Canada 1939-1948

Eventually they settled in Montreal, via Toronto, with Frank Watson.

She worked on the Mosquito bomber assembly lines at the Dowty Aircraft factory, became the union secretary, and a leftist activist. The boys made pocket money doing milk and paper rounds. She divorced Frank Watson, he married again and their two families remained friends for 50 years.

Peter reckons he became ‘a bit of a delinquent’ and after the war Tom remembered home life as his being without Peter, who was fostered to a farm, with his mother getting what jobs she could (after the war women were being dispatched to the home) and their rooms being dominated by a tyrannical hatmaker and his industrial sewing machine.

During the war, Tom recalled, their mother allowed the boys to believe that they were English, ‘it never occurred to me to ask why we should escape the war any more than other people in England. But then I also never questioned why our school friends coming from Finland, Latvia, Estonia etc had come either.’

Minorities were routinely abused in Canada – many restaurants excluded Jews and Blacks, and of course Germans were subjected to insult. It came as a shock to the boys when their mother told them that their family, too, was German. Tom was a teenager before he learned he was a Jew.

That happened only when they left Canada in 1948. Ellen was struggling as a single parent, and finally decided that the children were suffering. She swallowed her pride and wrote to Sidonie and Hans Feibusch for help. They took the train to Nova Scotia and the boat to Liverpool. ‘Mum sat us down in the cabin and explained a bit of history. We were not English; part of our family lived in England. We were central European refugees from Hitler. The Nazis saw us as Jews. ’ Tom thought this was great, ‘now I could be seen to be interesting.’

Return to England – Education and early work 1948-1959

They settled in Sussex, where he briefly attended Midhurst grammar school. His education was haphazard, but he was fast-tracked to study architecture.

From the early 1950s to 1957 Tom studied architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now part of Westminster University). He then worked briefly for Erno Goldfinger, the variously celebrated and notorious architect whose towers pierced the landscape during the rush to address slums and housing shortage. The irascible Goldfinger called him a “bloody little anarchist”. Tom also worked in the London County Council housing department for a short time as a member of the team working on the celebrated estate at Roehampton.

During the 1950s Britain’s determination to join the club of nuclear powers provoked radical resistance. Tom took part with Pat Arowsmith, a peace activist who became a household name, in protests organized by the Direct Action Committee. At Swaffham, where protests were focused on opposition to the location of Thor nuclear missiles at a Royal Air Force base, Tom’s direct action stunt was to sit in a concrete mixer.

When conscription was still the mode of recruitment to Britain’s armed services, Tom refused to do national service and won his case to be accepted as a conscientious objector. He was assigned to work in the University College hospital basement. He got past frustration at scrubbing floors and operating the dishwasher by buying a ticket on a tramp steamer to the Mediterranean. The plan was to go to India to research traditional and modern building techniques. He knew, however, that he’d have to work his away along the Middle East.

Work in Tel Aviv and family connections 1959-1961

His friend Adah Karmi suggested he look up her father, an architect in Tel Aviv. His mother and Peter set him off at West India Docks on the Thames and ‘as a parting shot Mum said that I might look up Leo or other relatives in Israel.’ He wondered if he’d ever see her again.

In Tel Aviv he knocked on Karmi’s door – and got a job sketching buildings, he was told, that wouldn’t be built. A good client was Arieh Pilz, a remarkable entrepreneur, and Tom’s job was to ‘keep him happy’ with sketches for projected schemes. Pilz would promise a sumptuous meal if Tom could deliver a drawing within 24 hours. Several sumptuous meals later a scheme for the Tel Aviv offices for the El Al airline took off. Tom was always only a couple of weeks’ working drawings ahead of construction, and dogged by compromises and changing plans, but the curved concrete slab got built, ‘I lost many more battles than I won, and it shows,’ he said of the El Al building which was, at the time, the highest and most ambitious building in Israel.

El Al building, Tel Aviv

There was another drama in Tel Aviv – the journey into his own heritage. He checked out the name Knopfelmacher in the telephone directory. Two were listed. Neither were his relatives.

But a friend from London was visiting Israel, she’d been brought up in a children’s village and together with Tom planned a visit. On the way she asked him to remind her of his name, Knopfelmacher, meaning small button maker. Was it a coincidence that she had friends in the village named Kafturi – Hebrew for small button maker. They knocked on the door of Katka Kafturi, ‘Do you know someone called Leo Knopfelmacher?’

She did: her own father’s brother – and Tom and Peter and Ellen had stayed with them in 1935. Her parents were Gustel and Rosa and from them he picked up some stories about his mother and father.

Leo was born in 1904, lived in Czechoslovakia and in the early ‘20s he and his brother stowed away on a boat to North America. They made many attempts to get across the border into Canada. According to Gustel Leo tried to study journalism, met and married Merrion, the daughter of the great journalist HL Mencken and had two children with her. According to Gustel the exasperated Mencken offered him $25,000 to divorce her and leave the country. He was next heard of driving a red Mercedes convertible around Europe. He did time in the Foreign Legion, got away to Germany and again Gustel helped him out, by finding someone who helped to make a forged passport.

Decades later Tom heard another anecdote from Ellen’s sister Hilda: Ellen had been involved in a little passport forging industry. Perhaps, he wondered, that was when Leo and Ellen met, in the early ‘30s.

When Ellen had decided to take the children and run away from Leo and from Palestine in 1936, Gustel helped them secretly leave. Leo was very angry.

Apart from gambling Leo set up a successful beach restaurant but he himself left Palestine in 1937 working as a ship’s cook until war broke out and he landed in Britain as a refugee. There he met and married Betty Irvine, later a social work professor. He worked on ships, ferrying Liberty boats across the Atlantic. Finally, it was said that Leo had died in a car crash. He didn’t. He suffered depression and died in 1948 by committing suicide.

It was in Israel than Tom also had another serendipitous encounter that revealed yet more about his father. The connection was Arieh Pilz, his client. Pilz had also been active in the Hagana, the secret Jewish army that fought the British and the Palestinian Arabs. Apparently, Pilz had been Leo’s partner in the beach restaurant in 1936-7.

During one of many rowdy meetings with his developer Pilz, Tom asked him a question: did he remember Leo Knopfelmacher.

‘What is HE to YOU?’ he shouted. Tom told him. Pilz adored Leo, ‘What a great guy,’ and from then on took Tom to his heart and into his family.

Tom’s heritage, then, took him into the great journey and politics of migration, anti-semitism, zionism, both sides of the Atlantic and ultimately back to his birthplace.

In 1961 he felt he needed to see his mother again and he returned to London.

Ellen suffered terribly from her cancer. A leg had to be amputated and she lived in constant pain. When her sons were in their mid-20s the pain moved her to the decision to end her life. Her sons didn’t want a religious ceremony, and in those days secular memorials were somehow unavailable. The municipality took her body. They were bereft, they didn’t know what else to do, recalls Peter, but ‘It was brutal.’

Architect in England 1962-2001

In 1962 Tom’s architectural career moved to a senior position with Austin-Smith and Partners, who had a reputation for being in the vanguard of office efficiency. – Tom reckoned that that was where learned how to run an architect’s office. But managing associates and subordinates, that wasn’t his thing. In 1964, he set up on his own. A year later he met Adah Nathani. Sparks flew and kept flying during the 40 years they lived together.

Politically – she using her sociology/anthropology/planning expertise, he his architecture – they became part of an ingenious nationwide movement of professionals who were reinventing housing politics.

In the early 1970s they helped form Camden Housing Action and the Camden law centres. Tom helped tenants who took on their landlords, and became a loved local character.

As an architect, he built relatively little, but everything he build was published and widely regarded ‘little gems.’ He never wanted to develop a house style; each project scrupulously addressed the individual needs of brief, site and context. And though his output was not large, it was diverse, ranging from houses and interiors to offices, studios and light industry. The first of his buildings to receive general acclaim was the house he built in 1971 for himself and his family in Murray Mews, Camden, ‘a remarkable exercise in compression and sensitivity,’ commented Peter Davey of the Architects Journal. ‘On a very small site, he managed to insert three bedrooms, two terraces, a living area, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, a garage, garden, studio/office and a couple of galleries’ for himself, Adah, their two sons, Finn and Leo, and his office. ‘All this is hidden behind a wall of secondhand London bricks, chosen to maintain the traditional mews atmosphere. After coming in through the virtually blank brick wall, it is astonishing to find the house full of natural light, often pouring from above.’

Ted Cullinan, the RIBA gold medalist, described the house as ‘most certainly a composition on great skill, amounting to far, far more than the sum of its parts: each piece inside and out having its own task within the balanced whole.’ Cullinan saw his work and his teaching as a commitment not to architecture as form only but as seen through ‘the art of building construction.’

Tom had argued furiously against Camden council’s decision to widen Murray Mews by forcing all new buildings to be set three meters back from the street line. In the late 1960s he forced the Ministry of Housing to overturn the council’s decision.
’His work showed his tenacity, understanding of materials and light, and his ability to compress a complicated programme into an enjoyable piece of city,’ comments Peter Davey. ‘This was evident, on a larger scale, in the late 1970s with his work on the Alexandra Road estate, north Camden. Houses and flats were placed above industrial workshops, becoming one of the most successful parts of the borough’s most impressive housing development.’

In 1980, however, Tom suffered a terrible motorbike accident, which smashed his leg and put him in hospital for many months, then left him immobile at home for many more, with a string of painful operations. The accident, with such a long, slow recovery, had a disastrous impact on his personal wellbeing and on his practice, which never regained its momentum.

When he slowly began work again, he concentrated on smaller buildings, the opportunity for large schemes, such as the development on the Alexandra Road estate, had passed.

He continued teaching part time at the Royal College of Art after the accident, as he had done since the mid 60s. Later, in the 90s, he taught at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture, as well as being a visiting critic and lecturer in other places.
In 2001 he closed his practice, and, with Adah, embarked on the last, exhilarating, phase of their life together. They went to work in Palestine.

Work and Life in Palestine 2002-2006

Adah, had been brought up in strongly Zionist family where Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish were spoken. She was part of the zionist youth movement and set to emigrate to Israel after university and settle on a kibbutz. But her eyes were opened when did her MA thesis in Israel and witnessed the racism both against North African and Arab Jews and the Arabs in Israel who were invisible and the hated Other.

From 1967 they opposed the occupation of Palestine by Israel. Adah stopped speaking Hebrew. 

When the 2nd Intifada broke out in 2000 they became involved in pro-Palestinian politics. They began to think about whether they could live there and support the Palestinians using their life and work experience.

Adah explains it like this: ‘For both of us such a commitment melded personal and political. For Tom, I think in a way, which had never hit him before. For me the only other such experience of strength of feeling and engagement was the women’s movement in the late 60s/70s.’

Tom went on ahead in 2001 to study Arabic but in reality spent most of his time monitoring and recording what was happening, got ill with pneumonia on checkpoint watch. 

Tom describes his ‘why’ in an email to his son, Finn, of February 2002:

“Day by day what I feel changes and so perhaps do the reasons. Over the last 2 years and until I arrived, I might well have said ‘I think I have found something which begins to replace my obsession with architecture’. Something I want to do, exactly what and how I do not know, except that it would involve me directly as a person rather than a political being (which I have never really been. i.e. I might have had commitment but no staying power.)

The other question is why now? 45 years ago I thought making a Jewish state was a bad mistake. I was not completely aware of the terrible injustice and consequences. Forty years ago working in Israel, I could see the negative effects of yet another Nationalism and I could also see the second rate citizenship of the Palestinians inside Israel. I was still only just aware of the incredible harm being done to a whole people outside the then borders.

In 1967 the Israelis felt themselves under siege and in the 6 day war, showed themselves to be a well-organised military state, unlike the surrounding Arab countries. They captured most of the land at that time containing the refugee camps of the Palestinians. The Palestinians therefore swapped one master for another and still had nothing… and for the last 35 years their plight has continually worsened to the point that many young Palestinians see absolutely nothing for them here and no way out…

The answer to why now …lies with me being 66 years old and maybe just capable and healthy enough to make a contribution. Now that I am here it is clear that it is not the ‘contribution’ which is important. It is the fact that I am here which gives people I meet a degree of support in what looks to them like total isolation.

The world does not seem to care. Virtually every contact I make whether in the street or anywhere else makes it super clear that my presence here is valued no matter what I can or cannot do. Just the fact that I am here. I am continually moved by it. I cannot get used to it.”

He returned to Palestine to teach; he was visiting professor (2002-05) at Birzeit University in Ramallah. He then worked with the Palestinian Centre for Architectural Conservation, Riwaq.

While in Ramallah, Tom documented, in writing, photographs and sketches, what he witnessed. His flimsy frame, camera poised, would not yield to Israeli soldiers. His reports to the western press and on the World Wide Web were some of the first to show Israel’s wanton destructiveness, and its use of planning and architecture to control the Palestinians.


So far this is a rather impersonal narrative about Tom Kay, an expanded version of the obituary published in The Guardian. I come to my own feelings about dear Tom: I loved him; he was one of my oldest friends – our friendship was most quarrelsome and faithful. It began when he and Adah, my former husband Bobby and I met through a group of Communist Party dissenters in the late ‘60s; it endured through the Women’s Liberation Movement – he argued interminably, he knew it was worth it because he knew it was important; actually I think he also wanted to be in it, not simply to support it, but to be in that struggle (like he wanted to be in black power – he wrote to the Black Panthers offering to join up. They refused him, politely.)

Like a myriad others I am the beneficiary of his ideas about the politics of space and light and building and texture; and his wisdom about the Second Intifada.

He loved adventures and risk: We can still conjure him, underneath desert stars, in foaming rivers, so small on such big motorbikes; being brave – diminutive, statuesque, holding his camera in front of soldiers; we can still recall his modest yet clever thinking; his troubled intransigence, his curiosity and profound personal generosity, and still miss his ruminations and yarns, his giggles, his glinting…