Dr JM Gerald Gordon

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JM Gerald Gordon
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Born(1933-12-14)December 14, 1933
Vryheid, South Africa
DiedSeptember 11, 2016(2016-09-11) (aged 82)
Johannesburg, South Africa
Burial placeWest Park Jewish Cemetary, Johannesburg
NationalitySouth African
CitizenshipSouth Africa
  • M.Arch
  • Ph.D
Alma materUniversity of Witwatersrand
  • Architect
  • Academic
Years active1955-2016
Spouse(s)Loraine Gordon (d.2020)

Dr JM Gerald Gordon (December 14, 1933 - September 11, 2016) was a prominent South African architect and university professor. He is best known for inventing the "Thin-skin" building method which integrates construction elements that are traditionally separate, and uses locally sourced, low-cost materials to achieve sustainable architecture. His papers and drawings are archived at the University of the Witwatersrand "Wits" University of the School of Architecture & Planning. He was president of the South African Institute of Architects in 1977 and 1978. His residential home was recognised with a "Blue Plaque" by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation in 2020.

Life and career

Gordon was born in Vryheid, Kwazulu-Natal. The family moved to Johannesburg in 1945, where he was a pupil at Athlone Boys High School, matriculating in 1950. He progressed to Wits School of Architecture, graduating in 1955. Aside from a period abroad (London 1960-62) Gordon was in full-time private practice in Johannesburg until 1976. At that point, during the building recession following the Soweto uprising, he was invited by then head of the Wits Architecture School Pancho Guedes to join the school as associate faculty. He became tenured a few years later, maintaining just a studio practice. In 1981 he was awarded the commission to design the new Johannesburg Children's Home (orphanage), which he transformed from a single-building institution into an interlocking multiple-home solution.

During the 1980s, Gordon developed a software interface for early iterations (1982-90) of AutoCAD which optimised the native program for architects' use. Under licence from AutoCAD, this became known as the "GX Extensions" and was widely used by small and medium-sized architecture firms in South Africa at the time.

Gordon retired (mandatory age) from the University of Witwatersrand in 1993, but remained as a Research Fellow for a further two years. He was appointed as an Honorary Research Fellow of the University in 1999 and remained so until his death. During this time he developed and prototyped the Thin-skin (formerly Twin Thin-skin) building method.

Thin-skin construction and design

In Thin-skin construction, two or more "skins" of wire-reinforced cement mortar (also known as structural mortar) are separated by steel ribs at regularly spaced intervals, all bound together to form an integrated, homogeneous structure. The method can be used for walls, floors and ceilings, or for structural load-bearing walls, suspended slabs, and cantilevers. The outer skins enclose an air gap which provides insulation and a moisture barrier in the manner of cavity wall construction.

Single-skin construction is also possible, including for decorative items such as canopies, screens and shelfs.

Gordon understood thin-skin construction as a modernisation of wattle and daub, a 6000-year-old technology in which a woven lattice of wooden strips i.e. the wattle, is daubed with, variously, soil, clay, sand, animal dung or straw. In Gordon's Thin-skin buildings, the wattle is replaced with steel-bar-reinforced wire mesh and polypropylene sheeting, and the daub is a concrete mix. The strength and malleability of rebar particularly allows the architect to create novel forms and shapes in service of design.

In addition to its design and structural elements, because Thin-skin construction is relatively low-cost and uses easily sourced local materials, Gordon proposed it a solution to upgrading townships and informal settlements. Also, due to its cavity wall principle (retaining heat and enabling passive cooling) it forms part of a general worldwide re-orientation towards eco-aware, sustainable housing. Gordon presented a research paper on the application of Thin-skin construction to affordable and sustainable housing at the SB'04 (2004) conference on sustainable building.

Gordon published three monographs describing this research and its possibilities. These are From Vernacular to Spectacular; 279 ways to use Thin-Skin Construction; and Design Possibilities with Thin-Skin Construction. The monographs include construction specifications and technical diagrams, and are freely available to researchers via the Wits School of Architecture Archive (librarian). The physical addresses of various buildings constructed with Thin-skin technology are also available to researchers via the archive.


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