On 31 October 1996, Louis Karol, David Jack (V&A Waterfront MD) and Carl Momberg gathered with a bottle of bubbly and an orange on Quay 5 at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
It was 60 years to the day that architect Louis Karol had arrived as an immigrant in South Africa by ship. The ship had berthed at Quay 5 and Victoria Basin was still the main point of arrival. Duncan Docks had only been recently completed.
But in 1996 it was a very different Victoria Basin. The Table Bay Hotel and Victoria Wharf shopping centre had been designed by Louis Karol Architects and the BOE office building would soon be under construction across “The Cut”. Since 1952, buildings by Louis Karol Architects have sprouted up all over South Africa and there was a time, when surveying high-rise cranes on construction sites in Cape Town, that Louis could boast that his firm accounted for the majority.
But it’s his story of arriving in South Africa that is most fascinating. A Lithuanian Jew, his family was among the last to immigrate before restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration into South Africa.
His father, a house painter, had left the family a few years earlier to find work and a home in Cape Town. Then he sent for his family. They trekked from their village to the nearest station, carrying all their possessions on a horse which walked with a limp in the one leg.
Arriving at the station, they sold the horse to a gypsy who promptly hit the horse on the other leg to even out the limp, and probably sold it a little later at a profit. And they set off by train to Geneva to sail for South Africa, a two-week trip by sea.
When the ship berthed, 8-year-old Louis was at the railings and saw his father waiting on the quayside. Louis first saw oranges while on the ship. He saved some oranges as a present for his father, not knowing that South Africa has lots of oranges. Louis threw the oranges to his father as a present. His father kicked the oranges into the water – afraid of a customs official.
Years later, Louis persuaded his parents to supplement their income by opening a boarding house at Muizenberg. He worked there after school and during school holidays to enable him to attend the University of Cape Town to study architecture. He opened his architectural practice while still at university.
Was it Joel Mervis who wrote in a column in the Sunday Times many years ago: “What a great place Lithuania must have been to produce so many talented Jewish immigrants South Africa, where they have made such an indelible impact.”