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Obituary: Dalibor Vesely (1934 – 2015)

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Renowned architectural historian and teacher Dalibor Vesely has died aged 79 following a heart attack

It is understood the Prague-born academic was undergoing back surgery at London’s Whittington Hospital shortly before his death yesterday morning (31 March).

Vesely was widely recognised for his key role in introducing the concepts of hermeneutics and phenomenology into architectural study.

He studied architecture and art history in Prague before relocating to London in 1968 on the advice of his brother who was working as a physicist in England.

Vesely then spent around a decade teaching at the Architectural Association where he headed up the school’s prestigious ‘unit 1’ study group.

Source: Eric Parry Architects

Lecture by Dalibor Vesely at Eric Parry Architects

During this time, the academic also teamed up with critic Joseph Rykwert to launch a masters degree in architectural history at the University of Essex.

High-profile architects who completed the course included Daniel Libeskind and University of Pennsylvania professor of architecture David Leatherbarrow.

In 1978, Vesely then teamed up with fellow academic Peter Carl to create a new M.Phil in the history and philosophy of architecture at the University of Cambridge.

This move also saw the AA’s emerging studio culture introduced to the ancient university.

During the 25 years he taught at Cambridge Vesely influenced many well-known architects such as Eric Parry, Patrick Lynch and University of Westminster professor David Dernie.

Dalibor changed the course of my life

Dernie said: ‘Dalibor changed the course of my life and inspired a generation of architects by the sheer depth of his wisdom, generosity and creativity.’

Lynch – who completed his M.Phil with the academic in 1996 – said: ‘Although moving to Cambridge meant he was distanced from the London scene AlvinBoyarsky described Dalibor as the most influential thinker in London.’

Rykwert said: ‘Anyone who had the good fortune to work with Dalibor will feel his loss personally - his enthusiasm, sympathy  and generosity motivated a penetrating intellect and a vast store of scholarship. Generations of students will witness to the impact he had on their thinking and their lives.’

His most recent work Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation – which explores divided attitudes towards built forms throughout history – was published in 2004.

 

Further comment

  • Daniel Libeskind

I’ve known Dalibor for 45 years. He was my teacher, my mentor and someone whose ideas about architecture and cities transformed my view of the field. 

  • David Leatherbarrow, professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Dalibor was an inspiring teacher and creative thinker—two great strengths rarely combined.  His ideas and insights will live on through those he taught as well as those he influenced indirectly, not through repetition but reconsideration, for he insisted that any given topic was an invitation to think again.  
This list of architects, scholars, and professors who will acknowledge his deep and lasting effect on their development is long and influential in architecture today. Despite an astonishingly profound knowledge of a range of fields and disciplines, he would not have rejected the characterization once given to the founder of the phenomenological tradition, Edmund Husserl—that he was a perpetual beginner. He felt that European culture was living reality, the renewal of which required imaginative design and disciplined reflection.  Architecture was his vocation and his passion.

  • Peter Carl, director of studies for Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge

Dalibor had two teaching careers, firstly at the AA and Essex, then at Cambridge.  At the first, he found himself working along with Rem Koolhaas, Leo Krier, Bernard Tschumi during the time that the city became a fundamental topic; but the most significant figure for him there was Alvin Boyarsky, whose insights regarding a school built around people and the worlds they represented and could teach remained a paradigm for DV.

At Essex he began a 50-year dialogue with Joseph Rykwert and the opportunity to develop more profoundly the philosophical foundations for the creative limits and possibilities.  These two sides of his teaching were brought together at Cambridge, with the support of Sandy Wilson and Robin Middleton.  

The design work - about 30 years of diploma studios, always rooted in European cities - complemented the historical and philosophical work conducted in the MPhil and PhD Programme in the History and Philosophy of Architecture.  These bald facts, however, only hint at the uniqueness of his contribution.

The intensity, depth and acuteness of insights, not to mention the originality of the designs, he brought to the subject had the effect of creating an ethos, what might be termed an architectural culture.  People learned that architecture was very profound and rich, and that it possessed its own integrity, not to be derived from the sciences, psychology, art history, etc.

At the same time, this ethos was pervaded by optimism and generosity, a belief that the city - and its culture - could not be flattened to the aggregate of individuals pursuing self-interest, but possessed the capacity to become the framework for depth of understanding first articulated by Aristotle.

The many who went on to become teachers and heads of schools, as well as practitioners such as Eric Parry, Stephen Witherford, William Mann and Patrick Lynch developed this ethos in their own ways.   

  • Tony Chapman Hon FRIBA

Vesely was one of the most influential European teachers of architecture. With training ranging from engineering to philosophy via the history of art and architecture he brought a unique breadth and freedom to his teaching of the subject. His pupils include Daniel Libeskind, Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow. He taught at the University of Essex, at the Architectural Association, the University of Cambridge and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2006 the Royal Institute of British Architects honoured him with the Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education. Professor David Dunster’s citation included the following thought: ‘His students are among the leading lights of the architectural profession and broadcast something of his message though never in that special way that he has: those students educate, teach and administer major architectural schools throughout the country and abroad. His lectures are attended with awe and sometimes comprehension. His tutorials stimulate, provoke and expand what students never knew to be possible. He is a staunch friend to many, known to his intimates as a wit and a spiky raconteur. He is admired internationally and author of only one book of substance. But what a book. He is a model of a passionate architect temporarily engaged with academia because he believes in teaching.’

In that book, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation (2004), Vesely set out his argument on he basis of his experience of architecture, as it constantly works through different modes of representation, including ‘built reality’. He defines the present cultural situation as divided and ambiguous, especially when it comes to architecture. Twentieth-century architecture, he says, placed its trust in the epistemological model of modern science. Today, the attempt to rehabilitate the primary tradition of architecture is dogged by the problem of bridging the modes of representation and concepts of knowledge that in some cases precede modern science, that is precede, transform and extend the horizon of scientific knowledge as it takes its course from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In 2014 he was nominated by Eric Parry for Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects and February 2015, although already very ill, he came to the RIBA to receive the Fellowship. In his witty acceptance speech he said: ‘Judging by the selection of candidates for the fellowship, I am really very impressed and nicely surprised that the selection of people seemed to reflect something slowly happening in the architectural field and this is a new vision of how architecture is really made. The fixed assumption that architecture is just reproduced pragmatically orientated offices seems to be disappearing in shadow and is being replaced by something we still don’t have a clear picture of but it is very interesting and provocative – that architecture is made not only in the offices where there is often very little time to explore and invent, and it is interesting that even people like Peter Eisenman claims that some of the most interesting recent contributions to architectural innovation comes from better schools of architecture. But also publicity, exhibitions, competitions all that is a milieu in which something gradually crystallises and comes eventually to the offices where it comes into existence. If this is the tendency for the future I would like to end up with two words: congratulations and thank you.                

 

  • Alexandra Stara, associate professor and reader in the history and theory of architecture at Kingston University

Dalibor’s passing is extremely sad news for the multitude of his students and friends, as well as, of course, his family. He was a very rare person, who overcame challenges in his life most of us cannot imagine, and who went on to make a profound impact on the lives of so many. It was a privilege to know him.

 

  • Stephen Witherford of Witherford Watson Mann Architects

Dalibor was just a teacher, of the most imaginative and challenging kind.

He was incredibly generous with what he had to teach. Design studio tutorials, student trips, crits, seminars, structured and informal conversations, lectures and writings, at home, in faculty over a coffee, he did the lot. He never stopped teaching. He was generous to those he taught. He had a lot to teach. He will continue to teach through what he has left for us to understand better.

I remember, prior to one tutorial with Dalibor, feeling both relieved and a little pleased with myself when I managed to work through a philosophical text he had suggested, something that did not come at all easily to me. I met him in his study, the air thick with cigarette smoke and books, feeling a strong sense that my new found insight distinguished me from less knowledgeable people. Having explained my thoughts on the text and awaiting some form of modest praise he simply said,  ‘well, of course, the more you understand the more you recognise you are just like everybody else’.

It was unusual not to leave a crit or discussion with Dalibor without feeling the burden of a further set of fundamental questions to consider. For Dalibor, knowledge worth understanding was knowledge of our experiences in the world, experiences that we each recognise and share. This understanding was fundamental to avoiding an approach to architecture through abstraction or formalism.  He never used knowledge as a form of elitism, simply a means to enable us all to live life more joyfully and fully with others. 

 

 

 

 

 

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • I had the privilege of working with Dalibor as a student in Unit 1 at the AA in the 1970’s. He was a most original and provocative thinker. If his provocations were often difficult to interpret back into the intensely physical world that architectural discourse must always, ultimately, inhabit, his lasting achievement for me was to put human experience – both individually and collectively - at the heart of the architectural project. Everything else – including the technological innovations with which many British architects of the past half-century have been so obsessed – was secondary to that task.
    Alan Power - Alan Power Architects Ltd

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  • mark dudek

    Dalibor was a generous inspiring teacher always willing to make his broad philosophical ideas relevant to a young architecture student when he tutored my thesis dissertation. Patient and kindly he was a key part of my development and has been a constant reference point throughout my life.

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  • Charismatic, charming, surrounded by admirers, everyone wanted to be in Dalibor's studio when I was at Cambridge. His teaching was challenging, complex, intense but inspiring and I wanted to understand and be part of his school of teaching. We knew we part of architectural history and I wanted to be part of it but remained on the fringe.

    Memories of darkened crits in the 'pit' with swirls of cigarette smoke and strong coffee from Martins. M Phil seminars round the Library table for the chosen few. References to Gilgamesh, Czech animators Brothers Quay as well as Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Field trips to Leuven and Naples with Dave Dernie and Phil Meadowcroft. Collages and layered images representing both spaces and ideas.

    Not easily forgotten.

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  • Shrewd Zeus
    Laughed

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