Hilary Halpern was born on 31st May 1928 in Chatham, Kent. He lived with his parents and sister over the health food and tobacconist shop they ran In the High Street. His father, Alec was a Chief Inspector in the Special Constabulary. Hilary went to the Sir Joseph Williamson Mathematical School, the local Grammar school in Rochester. He was evacuated to Wales during the war to live with his Aunt, Uncle and cousins along with two distant cousins who had arrived in Britain on the Kinder transport. He decided not to stay in Wales and hitched a series of lifts from Wales across England back to his parents’ home in Chatham when he was about 12 years old. The journey took 21/2 days, and he slept out, wherever he was, and was pretty hungry. Backhome as a teenager, Hilary lived through the blitz, on more than one one occasion searching for his mother through the burning dockland of the East end.
As a young man, Hilary served in the airborne forces in the theatre of the Middle East in the immediate post-war period. He was in Israel in 1948 for the handover of the country from the British. With the invasion of the country by the surrounding Arab states, who did not recognise the new state, Hilary joined forces with the nascent Israeli army and fought until the ceasefire agreed. It was an echo of his own father’s life, who fought in the British Army against the Ottomans and in the battle of Jerusalem in 1917.
After leaving the army, Hilary studied architecture and planning at Leeds, where he met Marie whom he married in 1954. He first started his practice in the Medway towns where he had grown up, but as the practice grew, he set up offices in London at John Carpenter House on the edge of the city. The practice – the Halpern Partnership – continued to grow, not only in London but internationally. The Partnership formed offices and collaborations in more than 20 countries, but particularly in France, Israel, and the USA, where he partnered with New York’s Emery Roth (famous for the World Trade Center).
Hilary Halpern (see gallery above) shows Princes Margaret the redesign of a town centre in Wales, 1969. The practice was involved in town centre redevelopments across the UK, including revolutionary designs for shopping centres and supermarkets. In London HPL became a leading specialist in redeveloping landmark buildings designed to blend into the cityscape. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hilary Halpern’s buildings often deliberately retained or rebuilt existing facades, while behind these the building was utterly rebuilt. Examples include some of London’s best known buildings, such as the Langham hotel (opposite the BBC on Portland Place) and 100 Piccadilly (behind the famous Eros sculpture).
Hilary had an irreverent style and sense of humour. When one CEO, of short stature, complained about the height of the urinals in their landmark HQ, Halpern sent him a drawing of a box to stand on. On another occasion, when a client rejected a 20ft high sculpture of Leda and the Swan that he had commissioned, on the basis that it was too sexual, he bought it and had it moved outside his own study window at home (in full view of his neighbour, a Judge).
Following his retirement in the early 90’s, Hilary Halpern returned to his first passion – sculpture. He funded a charity, the Halpern Charitable Foundation, and founded an art centre close to where he grew up where he could work. The centre, Nucleus Arts, now has over 35 resident artists in its studios,plus dedicated galleries in Chatham, Rochester and Maidstone as well as an educational programme, Art Inclusive, aimed at people at risk of social exclusion. The Foundation also supports long-term hostels for people with mental health problems in Medway as well as the Chatham Memorial Synagogue. Hilary was always passionate about the building and the local Jewish Community. He was inspired to do this by his grandfather, Solomon Halpern, who had arrived in Medway from Poland in the 1880s, and who had insisted that Hilary ensure the survival of the building and community at all costs. The synagogue is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the UK, and houses the hauntingly beautiful stained glass holocaust memorial window he designed.