M. H. Abrams, 2008. Photo: Cornell University Photography.


M. H. ABRAMS, who died at age 102 in April, was an almost mythical figure in literary studies, and not just because he remained intellectually active to the end (Norton published his The Fourth Dimension of a Poem in his one-hundredth year). He was the inventor and general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the first and dominant anthology presenting the literary canon, and for nearly fifty years he presided over the gradual expansion of that canon, adding more women and minority authors in every edition.

He was also, as Wayne Booth hyperbolically put it, “the best historian of ideas, as ideas relate to literature and literary criticism, that the world has known.” His Natural Supernaturalism (1973) is a grand synthesis of Romantic literature and philosophy, exploring in particular the secularization of structures of religious thought as an animating force in nineteenth-century culture. The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), his most famous book, was a groundbreaking study of conceptions of literature and the shift from theories of literature as mimesis to literature as expression. It presented itself as the history of an intellectual transformation, but, more importantly, in outlining different possible theories of literature, for the first time it made the study of literary theory and theories an explicit topic of academic inquiry. With its eminently respectable roots, The Mirror and the Lamp worked to validate the study of critical theory as central to the humanities.

Another contribution to critical theory is his A Glossary of Literary Terms, which he continued to edit and augment into his nineties; its modest title conceals succinct essays on all the topics germane to thinking about literature and culture. Unfortunately, the publisher, taking this as a textbook with a captive market, has priced it so exorbitantly that few people buy it. Abrams made his reputation as an intellectual historian, concentrating on Romantic literature, critical thought, and philosophy, but in his nineties he developed a new interest in the acoustic aspects of poems and how a reader’s experience of articulating the poem’s sounds contributes to its effects. He called this “the fourth dimension of a poem” and beautifully performs these effects in readings available on YouTube.

The Mirror and the Lamp opens with this sentence: “The development of literary theory in the lifetime of Coleridge was to a surprising extent the making of the modern critical mind.” “Surprising” because he argues that critical theories we had thought of as post-Romantic, if not anti-Romantic, have their roots in the Romantic period. Analyzing critical theories as networks of metaphors—the work of art as an organism, for instance—he set the stage for the deconstructive analysis of the assumptions sedimented in the figurative logic of intellectual systems, though he himself would only in jest acknowledge such monstrous progeny. Declaring himself an “unreconstructed humanist,” he resisted the explorations of structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, new historicism, and deconstruction, which decline to make the individual subject an origin but treat subjects as effects of impersonal forces that operate through them.

But while he might have done battle with various isms in essays for the public arena, at home at Cornell, where he spent his entire teaching career, he was a benign figure, a supporter even of colleagues like me who were championing such things as structuralism and deconstruction, and he did not, for instance, oppose my succeeding him as the Class of 1916 Professor of English, a chair on which he had conferred great distinction.

Though one of the preeminent critics of the century, he had none of the qualities we associate with academic superstars. He did not fly around the country speaking at conferences or in prestigious lecture series; he declined visiting professorships, preferring to remain at home in Ithaca. He did not seek academic power, either within the university or in professional organizations. He did not want a center of some sort to direct, though he worked to help found the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. He was never president of anything.

He was a great supporter of Cornell sports, especially the football team, and in his nineties was made honorary co-captain and allowed to call the toss of the coin at homecoming. He claimed never to have missed a home game until his one-hundredth year. This unreconstructed humanist was an incurable optimist, not only about the prospects of Cornell football but also about Ithaca weather. We were delighted that he was able to travel to Washington in 2014 to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.

Jonathan Culler is Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University and the author of Structuralist Poetics (1975), On Deconstruction (1983), and of Theory of the Lyric (June 2015).

Dalibor Vesely, 1989. Photo: Valerie Bennett.


DALIBOR VESELY was my teacher and friend. I was lucky enough to have a list of brilliant teachers—including John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and Joseph Rykwert—yet it was Dalibor who inspired in me a thoroughly new approach to architecture. He introduced an unknown X into my mind. This elusive X was closely conjoined to the contradictions embedded within his own mysterious being—one that haunted me with its ambiguity and negation. Words against stone. Thought against history. History against practice. Theory against thought.

It was only later that I realized the freedom offered by an encounter with the self-effacing spirit of his genius. I communicated with Dalibor intermittently over the years, and whenever I was in London we saw one another. Mostly, however, my relationship to him was telepathic—an unspoken connection. I thought of him out of the blue on the night of March 31, only to find out the next morning that he had died.

Sitting down to write this piece, I searched for his book Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation, but to no avail. It had mysteriously disappeared from its place on my bookshelf in my personal library, which only I can access! In a frenzy, I searched for it everywhere. Walking into a corner of my library, a book fell on me from an uppermost shelf I haven’t touched in years. As it dropped, a little Polaroid photo landed at my feet. It was the one and only photo of Dalibor and me, during his visit to New York in 2004. The Polaroid flash gave him a spectral glow—a ghost? I could only feel that just as in life, Dalibor’s presence was with me even when he was not.

A professor—an intellectual from a famed Baroque city. A man who published little. A thinker. Never hurried. Always there with a cigarette. Jokes. Mostly white shirts, often worn with a narrow tie. Light-colored trousers. A look that was directed toward no point. Suspicious of new things. Conversed with Gadamer and Patočka. Suspicious of Derrida. Worn-out eyes. Nighttime reader. More jokes. Not quite professorial. Sentences uttered with emphasis on adjectives. Seems preoccupied. Something. Laughter, then head held in the palm. Mystical look. Tired eyes. Must be. Thinking. Silence growing. Space. Fragments of thought. Dislikes systems. Dislikes the avant-garde. Father, a painter. Phenomenology. More European. Not fit. Newest jokes again. Lack of ambition. Dislikes abstraction. Hermetic hierarchies. Medieval. Medieval scribe. Haydn’s piano sonatas. Small flat in Highgate. Built-in shelves. Books worn out, mostly paperbacks. Wanted to put his hand into the Mississippi. Driver. Knows the engine. Pozzuoli and Paestum. Pizza margarita. Capable of lengthy monologues. Dada drummer. Born too early. Born too late. Body image. Merleau-Ponty followed by Heidegger. No one is coming. Catholic in the catacombs of Rome. Light and curtains. Veiled references. Charisma. Commentary. Theatrical continuity. Refugee. Looks into the distance before moving. Conversations with ghosts. 1968. Modest. Prefers not to. Outruns the crowd. Heretical observations. Known, but avoided. Brilliant. Against solipsism but caught. Language. Seldom ready. Too bad. Brightness. The call. Missed the chance. Again calmly writing without ink. One column after another. Pillars that bore colossal domes. Always a new thought. Held. Dismissed. A sardonic smile. A new star is born right now.

Daniel Libeskind is the Founder and Principal Architect of Studio Libeskind, based in New York, Milan, and Zurich.

Dalibor Vesely at Eric Parry Architects, 2013.


DALIBOR VESELY was a profound thinker of architecture’s predicament in the modern world. His thought was also the unique product of his personal practice, of a lifetime dedicated to teaching. For forty years, he inspired students in seminars and studios at Essex University (1968–78), the Architectural Association (1973–83), and then at Cambridge University (1978–2002). His book Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production (2004), which was eagerly anticipated for many years, is a testament to the depth of his reflection. Yet it presents only a fraction of the vast constellation of problems that he tirelessly and generously addressed with his students.

It was in his long, smoked-filled seminars, often with eyes closed and a thumb pressed to his brow, that he would unfold questions drawn from the tradition of phenomenology that lit his student’s imagination: “How are consciousness and material nature related?” “Where do body movements really start?” “Why do things become constituted and how?” “Where does intentionality come from?” The careful threads of thought that he drew out in pursuit of answers lay at the heart of his teaching.

In a time when the state began to withdraw its patronage for higher education and when universities became increasingly dominated by a managerial culture of assessment, Vesely stood trenchantly for education as a good in itself and for the space of teaching as one dedicated to ethical understanding and the continuity of the humanistic tradition. He believed passionately in a world that lay beyond the grip of instrumental rationality, and the intensity of his belief was grounded in his deep knowledge of the philosophy of his former teacher, Jan Patočka, as well as that of Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Phenomenology gave Vesely the personal and lasting conviction that grounds for ethical orientation in modernity still existed within the continuity of the prereflective dimension of the world as lived, in spite of the dualism and critical doubt that he believed had entered into European thought with Renaissance science and philosophy, and the relativism that has dominated Western society since.

Like Patočka and Merleau-Ponty, Vesely argued that bodily habits and gestures carry within them a moral and ethical drama and that the body’s spontaneous and dynamic movement is only possible because of its relation to a historically continuous ethical field—which includes others, the things of the social world, and the world as a whole.

In many decades of studios, seminars, dissertations, and scholarly travels to European cities, with students, he and colleagues such as Joseph Rykwert, Daniel Libeskind, Mohsen Mostafavi, Eric Parry, Alberto Perez-Gomez, David Leatherbarrow, and Peter Carl undertook the task of investigating the ways in which architecture and the city play their roles in the recognition of the lived world as a fundamental ethical source.

Although Vesely’s career ended abruptly on March 31, 2015, when he succumbed to a heart attack, his teaching remains alive as a major current of architectural pedagogy around the world, dedicated to a continued inquiry into architecture’s proper role and response to the questions raised by phenomenology.

Joseph Bedford is a New York– and London-based architectural designer, writer, historian, and filmmaker, currently completing a PhD at Princeton University.

Frei Otto at the Ingenhoven office, 2000. Photo: Ingenhoven Architects.


FREI OTTO’S EARLY YEARS were marked by instability and scarcity. He was born into an impoverished post–World War I Germany, educated in Berlin in the tumultuous years leading up to World War II, and drafted into the German military in 1943 before he could finish his degree in architecture. His first professional experience, of a kind, came when he spent two years as a prisoner of war in Chartres and became the camp architect. This beginning of personal and professional austerity left him obsessed with doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Otto’s fascination with the ultralight and the ultraminimal went far beyond aesthetics, in other words. Indeed, his passion took him well past the bounds of architectural convention and representation: His buildings were so perfectly optimized that they could not be drawn by hand or even calculated with the computers available at the height of his career.

Instead, Otto worked more like a scientist than a designer, devising physical experiments to determine the shapes and configurations of his buildings. Otto built countless models, and while at first glance these appear similar to conventional architectural models, they are in fact precise scientific instruments that determined the configuration of forces acting on and shaping his structures.

Excerpt from Frei Otto’s Soap Films and Tents, 1981

Some of the most striking “models” he created were intricate machines that dipped wire frames into a soap solution. When the frames were lifted out of the liquid, bubbles would form between the wires, with the surface tension of the bubble automatically creating the smallest possible surface area between the wires—in geometric terms, the minimal surface of a bounding curve, a shape that was almost impossible to calculate or determine in any way other than this empirical experimentation. Otto documented the results and then scaled them up to produce a building that not only used the least possible material but that also distributed stress forces evenly throughout —an essential property for structural stability in lightweight construction.

In such cases, Otto necessarily had to find the form of his buildings rather than design it. Instead of willfully shaping material, he invented experimental methods that would let him discover the shapes he wanted. Much has been made of Otto’s early interest in what is now called sustainable design, and in his lightweight structures as a symbolic postwar counterpoint to the massive monuments of National Socialism. But the true marker of Otto’s genius was the precise and inventive process through which he designed his buildings.

Frei Otto, Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000, Hannover, Germany. 
Photo: Hiroyuki Hirai.


Sadly, Otto has died just when his ideas are regaining popularity. In his later career, he worked as a consultant and collaborator with many other well-known designers, for example with Shigeru Ban for the Japanese pavilion at the Expo 2000 and with Ingenhoven, Overdiek und Partner on the Stuttgart 21 project. This is unusual for a late-career architect of his stature and underscores the fact that his life was based on the generous production of knowledge rather than the cultivation of an idiosyncratic artistic sensibility.

Otto wrote: “To build means to make architecture real on the borders of knowledge.” For him, architectural production was synonymous with the production of new ideas. A scientific approach to creating knowledge is all the more innovative in a field most often associated with cultural production. Otto’s legacy will be his drive toward rationality in all things, even in the murky and subjective realm of design.

Leo Henke is an architect based in New York

Frei Otto, 2015. Photo courtesy the Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation.


The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.
—Ezra Pound, “Vortex,” BLAST, 1914

THE AWARD OF THE PRITZKER ARCHITECTURE PRIZE this year to Frei Otto was a welcome surprise, though his passing so soon after he learned the news felt a bit like a reproach. Time doesn’t wait for the Pritzker or the Nobel, it’s clear. Otto would have been ninety on May 31. The prize was awarded posthumously on May 15 in Miami. In 1996, Otto wrote that all architects could be divided into three categories: “Arrangeur, Diebe, und Erfinder” (arrangers, thieves, and inventors). He believed that “inventors lay the groundwork for architecture, but they must often wait a long time before their contribution is recognized.” Indeed, Otto was dependent on the collaboration of “arrangers.” And his ideas and inventions were of course freely and frequently stolen (when he wasn’t already giving them away). His two most significant built projects, the main sports facilities for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1975 roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, were brought to him after their respective architects, Gnter Behnisch and Fritz Auer for Munich and Carlfried Mutschler for Mannheim, had won competitions with concepts drawn from Otto’s work. Otto had himself won an earlier competition for the German pavilion at the World Exposition 1967 in Montreal, with his friend the architect Rolf Gutbrod; the forms and materials of both the cable roof used in Munich and the wood lath roof for Mannheim first appeared in the Montreal pavilion. While the two later projects were widely published and admired, the vector of influence was not in doubt.

At the Montreal Expo 67 both the forty-two-year-old Otto and the seventy-two-year-old R. Buckminster Fuller designed their respective national pavilions. Both structures remain influential. In Fuller’s case, the geodesic dome represented his rationalist philosophy of design science and planning. In the half century since, the dome has been less consequential as a form than as the map of a way of thinking, a metaphor or synecdoche for Fuller’s view of life on Spaceship Earth. In Otto’s case, the form of his work has proved most influential. Despite their rational origin in the minimal surfaces of mathematics (famously explored through soap film models) the Montreal, Munich, and Mannheim roofs are exquisite forms that hover somewhere between landscape and cloud, their airy, immaterial structures belying their size. They are spiderwebs on a kaiju scale. They don’t seem man-made, let alone “authored.” They are “as little as possible and as much as necessary” or, following Jefferson and Pound’s motto, right at the fulcrum of tempus loquendi / tempus tacendi.

Frei Otto, the Germany Pavilion at the Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Frei Otto.


The composition of these structures—the tilt of the masts, the varied sizes and extent of the webs of cable or wood lath—have the inevitable quality of the most carefully contrived landscapes. While the authorship of each of the three projects is spread between the many collaborators, the language is clearly one invented by Otto. He stands at the center in the eye of each vortex as both an attractor and the focus of each collaborator’s anxiety of influence. He is the instigator and inventor, a figure like Pound, Duchamp, or Max Ernst, both charismatic and enigmatic. After all, his built work is quite limited beyond these three great projects, which mark the feasibility and potential of the vast body of research and the many unbuilt projects that have been so widely copied and adapted, from the cable structures, hump tents, and grid shells to the tree structures and pneumatic forms. Entire careers have been elevated by his influence.

The projects even gave birth to two competing methods of form finding through the computer modeling of nonlinear structures with large displacements such as fabrics or cable nets—distinct German-American and English lineages. The Munich and Mannheim projects each brought about new methods in computer-based numerical analysis in order to specify both the precise geometry of the funicular forms and to calculate the element stresses and overall deformations. For Munich, the great German structural engineer Jrg Schlaich, working with the finite-element pioneer John Argyris, developed the first iterative method for analyzing large deformation structures in cables or fabric. For Mannheim it was the Irish engineer and Schlaich’s exact contemporary, Peter Rice, who with Alistair Day created the “Anglo” method for analyzing cables and fabric known as Dynamic Relaxation. These are the two main tools that have been used for analyzing all the large cable and fabric structures in the world, and both were created specifically to overcome the challenges of translating the research models of Frei Otto’s lab into full-scale application. Otto, the son of a sculptor, never liked his role as instigator of the transition from the “tactility” of analog physical models to abstract numerical tools.

Frei Otto, Roofing for main sports facilities at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 1972. Photo: Christine Kanstinger.


And yet there is no question that Otto has been influential both as form maker and instigator. What is striking though is that his influence was largely achieved without any of the conventional vehicles of authorship in architecture. “The search for the minimal in architecture is simultaneously a search for the essence of material form” he wrote in 1990. Peter Rice in his An Engineer Imagines (1994) wrote of Otto: “In one way I see him as a twentieth-century Brunel. Think of the way Brunel worked and the kind of things he did, the broad range of activities he covered. He must have worked similarly to Frei. Frei uses intuition backed up by physics rather than mathematics. He has a strong physical sense. . . . We should call him an inventor.” Otto’s means of construction were drawn from the nomadic vernacular of the tent, and his influence could be likened to that of the peripatetic Socrates.

It is fitting that with Richard Rogers on the jury the Pritzker should be award to Otto. It was Rogers that put Ove Arup and his then associates Edmund Happold and Peter Rice in touch with Otto for the Mannheim project. And it was Rogers who, with Renzo Piano, would be deeply inspired and influenced by Otto in multiple ways; these two architects would also become Rice’s principle collaborators. The vortex or vortices of Frei Otto’s influence have begotten a great many threads of contemporary architecture, and one hopes that the Pritzker will carry on with more and wide-ranging forays into the primal grounds of architecture and engineering. The choice of Frei Otto, even if it is in many ways too late, opens up a rich set of questions about the role of collaboration and authorship in architecture. Perhaps it will spur better inquiry and theory so that architecture can catch up with art, music, and film and develop a more nuanced and sophisticated theory of its production and its many mothers.

Guy Nordenson is a professor of architecture at Princeton University and a partner of the structural-engineering practice Guy Nordenson and Associates.

Betty Churcher speaking at the launch of Notebooks at the National Gallery of Australia, 2011. Photo: National Gallery of Australia.


FAMOUSLY, THE NEWSPAPER ANNOUNCEMENT for Betty Churcher’s appointment as the new director of the National Gallery of Australia in 1990 ran under the headline “58-Year-Old Mother of Four Gets Top Job.” That the media ignored Churcher’s major achievements was not surprising: There was then small appreciation of the arts and few Australian women in leadership roles. In contrast, her passing this March was remarkable for the reverence and affection broadcast by both journalists and the general public.

Elizabeth Ann Dewar Churcher (ne Cameron) was born and educated in Brisbane. She was drawing from the moment she could hold a pencil but, on her first visit to the local art gallery, she truly “discovered the magic of art.” Her drawing skills and her native wonder in the power of art launched her on a trajectory that would last a lifetime. She won a scholarship to study abroad, first at the South West Essex Technical College, then at the Royal College of Art. There she excelled, graduating in 1956 and taking a rare first-class pass, the prize for drawing, and a bursary to travel in Europe.

Her new husband, Roy Churcher, was happy to stay when they visited Australia. Betty put her career on hold when she had the first of four children. “I really did desperately want to be an artist,” she later recalled. “But the arrival of the children somehow shifted all that emotional energy that had earlier gone into painting. I decided then that if I was not going to be an artist, the next best thing would be working with art.” With the youngest child at school in 1971, she relaunched her career, teaching art full time, becoming art critic for the national newspaper, The Australian, in 1972, and publishing her first book, Understanding Art, in 1974. She took a year’s sabbatical from teaching in 1977 to earn a master’s of arts from the Courtauld Institute, University of London. Betty’s energy and enthusiasm in evangelizing for the visual arts attracted attention, and she was called to teach at the Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT University) in Melbourne, soon becoming dean of art and design. In 1982, she was persuaded to become the director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the first woman to head an Australian state gallery. She vitalized the institution but had to navigate an inevitably tense relationship with the gallery’s imperious chairman, Robert Holmes Court. “I don’t think that I have ever tried to please anyone more—or pleased anyone less,” she later remarked. Her appointment to the National Gallery in Canberra in 1990 saved her from further frustration.

Churcher inherited a new museum, but one that was experiencing financial cutbacks. She was able to ride out the disenchantment with objective administrative acumen, an articulate appreciation of art, and extraordinary people skills. Her warm smile, coupled with an unusual candor and honesty, won converts first with the staff and then the press. There was nothing pompous about her: She was able to communicate her passion for art with visitors, collectors, and politicians, and turn them all into supporters.

Betty was never a micromanager. Her approach was always strategic and invariably people-oriented. When talking about herself, Betty credited her achievements to good luck. However, I recall that in the week after she started at the gallery there were a large number of boards in her office covered with images and details of all the staff so that she could get to know them all by name. Betty worked hard at her “good luck.” She instituted aggressive marketing strategies to promote the gallery and make its collection and exhibitions known to a broader audience. A series of groundbreaking major exhibitions, for example “Rubens and the Italian Renaissance” (1992), “Vision of Kings” (1995), and “Turner” (1996), attracted people from all parts of Australia and did wonders for the National Gallery’s profile. There were also a number of significant firsts: “Age of Angkor: Treasures from the National Museum of Cambodia” (1992) assembled breathtaking work from Cambodian museums for the first time since colonial rule; “Surrealism: Revolution by Night” (1993) showed Surrealism as a world movement, bringing together and contextualizing a phalanx of Australian practitioners; and with the bittersweet 1994 exhibition “Don’t leave me this way,” Canberra became the first national gallery anywhere in the world to tackle the challenging topic of HIV. And of course she instigated the construction of a new extension to house these many exhibitions. Her drive and brio made her a national figure, and the parade of well-publicized exhibitions earned her the sobriquet “Betty Blockbuster.” And all this while bringing up four children! “My determination to do things has been grounded in the fact that I was told very early and very firmly that I couldn’t,” Betty said in 2002.

Betty left the gallery in 1997 at age sixty-six, but this was hardly retirement. Her television series Take Five (1998), quick investigations of favorite works of art, screened immediately before the news for seven years. She was never intimidating and shared her personal enthusiasms in a way that could be appreciated by regular gallerygoers and newbies alike. The series confirmed her as the face of Australian art, the go-to person for all media questions on aesthetics; she became a much-loved cultural icon. Other art documentaries followed, including Hidden Treasures (2006), examining rarely displayed works in the national collections. That year, her worst fear was confirmed when she became aware her eyesight was deteriorating: “The thought of near-total blindness plunged me into black despair.” But she was determined to continue her obsession with art, researching, writing, and producing a trio of Notebooks illustrated with her own sketches (a lifetime habit, always drawn in front of the original to better understand the work) and comments analyzing her favorite paintings. The last of the Notebooks was finished in her hospital bed. She died on March 31.

Michael Desmond is a Canberra, Australia–based independent writer and curator.