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Tributes to ‘force of nature’ architect

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Respected architect and committed environmentalist Julia van Beelen has been remembered as a devoted mother and a force of nature.

Mrs van Beelen suffered a sudden illness while at work last week and passed away in hospital on Monday morning at the age of 52.

Family and colleagues have paid tribute to the caring mother of two, well-known for her efforts in the community and whose architectural fingerprints can be seen across the island.

Her brother, Kees van Beelen, told The Royal Gazette his sister had always “grabbed life by the horns”, adding: “Everything she did, she did 110 per cent”.

“My sister had a great sense of humour and fun,” Mr van Beelen said. “She was an incredibly vivacious person who seemed to draw people to her. She was extremely passionate about the environment and conservation; and was one of the founding members of one of the first environmental groups in Bermuda called Friends of Fish.

“She was also heavily involved in the Institute of Bermuda Architects and the Bermuda Society for Arts; she loved contemporary art and she was smitten by the beauty of Bermuda. She was so proud to be Bermudian.

“From a very young age, she had that innate curiosity about the world around her; she loved people and believed passionately that everyone was equal and deserved a chance.”

Mrs van Beelen met her husband Tim Axelsen through their mutual love of sailing and the couple married in Bermuda in October 2000.

They had two sons Torben, 15, and Haaken, 12, who Mr van Beelen described as “my sister's whole life”.

“Julia was one of the most devoted and engaged mothers I have ever seen,” Mr van Beelen said. “She had a very busy professional life and other community commitments, but she always found time for her boys, her family and her extended family.

“Her two boys, they were her life. She loved family and what it meant; and she loved all the family holidays like Christmas and Easter. She also loved Cup Match too.”

Mrs van Beelen and her family moved to Bermuda in the late 1960s from Holland and she and her three siblings grew up in St George's.

She attended St George's Prep School and then the Bermuda High School before travelling abroad to study art and literature at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Mrs van Beelen went on to earn an honours degree in architecture from the Kingston University in London before returning to Bermuda and joining local architecture firm Cooper Gardner. She worked her way up the ladder at the firm to become a partner.

John Gardner, partner at Cooper Gardner, described Mrs van Beelen as a “significant professional architect, a valuable partner and a team player”.

“Julia was a person of great integrity; always seeking ways to make the world a better place,” Mr Gardner said. “She was a strong advocate for the disadvantaged. She was looking forward to assisting the Salvation Army and the Government of Bermuda in the design to convert the Bishop Spencer School into housing for the homeless.

“She once said that this and other social work was as important as any project.

“Her recent work, which she tirelessly attended to, was as principal-in-charge on the Morgan's Point development. She believed in the promise of the team and the project and it was exciting to be a part of Bermuda growing after a long downturn in the economy.

“Julia was a mentor to many and remained friends with colleagues that formed part of the design and delivery teams.”

Mrs van Beelen was a member of the Institute of Bermuda Architects Council for the past 15 years and served as its president from 2005 to 2007.

Mr Gardner added: “Among her many initiatives was focusing on the scholarship, education and advancement of young Bermudians, that being of paramount importance to her. This extended to her office which endeavoured to support as many interns as possible.

“Julia always believed that architecture is a team effort, with everyone equal in their efforts and contributions and she was a rigorous taskmaster and great player in every sense of the words.

“She was a passionate fighter — passionate about accountability and passionate about the causes that were important to her: inclusivity, the environment, and the built environment.” Student Che Caines, an intern at Cooper Gardner, added: “Julia was a kind-hearted, caring soul who played a very big role in my life.

“She was a great mentor that taught me so much about architecture, design and the power of working together. Words cannot describe her passion for design which also led to other topics such as boating and gardening and even good old Bermudian banter.”

A funeral mass will be held on Friday at 4pm at St Theresa's Cathedral.

Julia van Beelen with her beloved sons Torben and Haaken
Architects Julia van Beelen and John Gardner were responsible for bringing the design ideas for Somersfield Academy to life.
Julia van Beelen
Julia van Beelen had a passion for sailing
Julia van Beelen and her husband Tim Axelsen pictured in 2016.

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Published May 03, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 03, 2017 at 10:15 am)

Tributes to ‘force of nature’ architect

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