Dalibor Vesely, a celebrated architectural historian, philosopher and teacher, died this week in London aged 79. Over the course of his teaching career, which spanned five decades, he tutored a number of the world’s leading architects and thinkers from Daniel Libeskind, Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Robin Evans, to Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow.
Vesely was born in Prague in 1934, five years before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Following World War II, he studied engineering, architecture, art history and philosophy in Prague, Munich, Paris and Heidelberg. He was awarded his doctorate from Charles University (Prague) having been taught and supervised by Josef Havlicek, Karel Honzik, and Jaroslav Fragner. Although later he would be tutored by James Stirling, it was the philosopher of phenomenology Jan Patočka who, in his own words, “contributed more than anyone else to [his] overall intellectual orientation and to the articulation of some of the critical topics” explored in his seminal book, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation, published in 2004.
In consideration of the length and significance of his career it is perhaps surprising that he produced only one book, yet it was this text which encapsulates his thinking most clearly. In it he cemented his ideas and, as such, it has become one of the most important studies exploring the role and implications of the poetics of hermeneutics and phenomenology in architecture. He presented an argument built around his experience of the discipline, suggesting that architecture continually works through different modes of representation by proposing an alternative to the narrow vision of contemporary architecture as a discipline that can be treated as an instrument or commodity.
He defined the present cultural situation as “divided and ambiguous”, believing that “twentieth-century architecture placed its trust in the epistemological model of modern science and gap between different technology that is today most explicitly reflected in the instrumental concepts of city and suburban landscape.” He saw today's attempt to rehabilitate the primary tradition of architecture as being “dogged by the problem of bridging the modes of representation and concepts of knowledge that in some cases precede modern science, i.e. precede, transform and extend the horizon of scientific knowledge as it takes course from the sixteenth –and seventeenth centuries.” In 2006 David Dunster noted that "Vesely is the author of only one book of substance. But what a book."
Vesely relocated to London in 1968, on the advice of his brother. He first taught at the Architectural Association, taking charge of the 'Unit 1' studio. Following this, he and Joseph Rykwert established a Masters programme in architectural history at the University of Essex, before moving to the University of Cambridge in 1978. Here he, Rykwert and Peter Carl initiated MPhil and PhD courses in the history and philosophy of architecture, thereby bringing the emerging studio culture which had been cultivated at the AA into Cambridge's archaic school. Over the course of his career, Vesely also taught at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, and was an Honorary Professorial Fellow at both Leicester and Manchester Schools of Architecture. He was elevated to Doctor of Arts honoris causa from Lincoln University in 2009.
In 2006, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) honoured Vesely with the Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education. The citation declared that "his lectures are attended with awe and sometimes comprehension" while "his tutorials stimulate, provoke and expand what students never knew to be possible." More than that, he was described as "a staunch friend to many, known to his intimates as a wit and a spiky raconteur." It concluded by stating that he was "a model of a passionate architect temporarily engaged with academia because he believes in teaching."
This year (2015) he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the RIBA alongside his close friend and colleague Peter Carl. Together, they had tutored a number of students through their PhDs, most recently at London Metropolitan University's CASS School of Architecture. Eric Parry, a former student, had nominated him in 2014. In his acceptance speech, Vesely 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.
I met Professor Dalibor Vesely and his brother and lifelong friend Dr. Drahosh Vesely, a physicist, on the occasion of the 2015 Honorary Fellowships ceremony in February of this year. Although I was not directly taught by him, the ideas he nurtured have been of enormous influence - as they have been for many others. During our conversations his fierce intellect, kindness and passion for critical thought shone through. His was a body of work which didn't exist in a series of great tomes, nor through buildings, but through the relationships with his students - most of whom are now leading lights in the profession.
Read statements from friends, colleagues and students, collected by the Architects' Journal, below:
Joseph Rykwert (long-standing colleague and friend - University of Essex, Architectural Association)
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.
Peter Carl (long-standing colleague and friend - University of Cambridge, London Metropolitan University)
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.
Daniel Libeskind (former student, lifelong friend)
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 Dernie (former student - University of Cambridge)
Dalibor changed the course of my life and inspired a generation of architects by the sheer depth of his wisdom, generosity and creativity.
Patrick Lynch (former student - University of Cambridge, London Metropolitan University)
Although moving to Cambridge meant he was distanced from the London scene Alvin Boyarsky described Dalibor as the most influential thinker in London.
Read Helen Mallinson's 2004 review of Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: the question of creativity in the shadow of production on BDOnline here. Below is an extract:
The book is a rich read: alternately dense, luminous, provocative, opaque and enlightening. Built around fragments that work as allegories or metaphors and establish a chain of reasoning, it holds together but in a structure that resists easy categorisation.
Vesely's book is, like the humanist tradition it mobilises, intelligible, generous in form and content, concisely illustrated and designed to last.