Dalibor Vesely
Source:theguardian Author:Rowan Moore Date: 2015-05-07 Size:
Dalibor Vesely, who has died aged 80, was one of the most important and inspiring teachers of architecture, and thinkers about the subject, of his generation.

Dalibor Vesely was able to visit his native Prague following the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Photograph: Valerie Bennett/Architectural

Dalibor Vesely, who has died aged 80, was one of the most important and inspiring teachers of architecture, and thinkers about the subject, of his generation. Those touched by his influence include Daniel Libeskind, architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Eric Parry, the subtle and thoughtful designer of cultural and educational buildings, and Sarah Wigglesworth, a pioneer of sustainable design. Winners of the Stirling prize in 2013 and 2014 were educated by Vesely.

These architects have different styles, but they share the understanding that their discipline is of cultural and poetic significance. It goes beyond the functional, and the stylistic and aesthetic. They owe this insight to Vesely, as do many other architects, writers and educators, who have gone on to teach and run schools of architecture (to name but a few) in Philadelphia, Harvard, London, Manchester and Sheffield.

His greatest achievement was at the department of architecture at the University of Cambridge, where he ran design studios and lectured on history and theory from 1978 until 2005, but he also taught at the Architectural Association, London, from 1968 until 1978, and contributed to the universities of Essex, Pennsylvania and Princeton. At Cambridge he helped to create a graduate programme in the history and philosophy of architecture.

Vesely was consistent in his pursuit of his central idea: that such things as creativity, belief, history and science are interconnected manifestations of the same thing – humanity’s search to find our place in the world. They are also activities shared within cultures and across time. The physical spaces of cities have a particular role as the setting and embodiment of these searches, and as vessels for carrying their meanings from one generation to another. Architecture, as something that includes the creative, the technical and the cultural, also has a particular role in bringing them together.

One example might be the stained-glass window of a medieval cathedral, where iconography is combined with the physical substance of the building, and where light is treated not simply as a technical issue, but as a manifestation of divine illumination. Another would be a Parisian cafe, a social and spatial idea that persists over time and in many different versions, but remains recognisable and consistent. Vesely also saw in surrealist art an ability to bring together the conscious and subconscious.

For Vesely it was a modern tragedy that these forms of understanding had become over-specialised, isolated from each other, and therefore fragmented, with drastic effects on architecture. There was something personal in Vesely’s sense of dislocation: he was born in Moravia (the son of a leading painter, Josef Vesely, and his wife, Bohumila Korena), grew up mostly in Prague and, having lived through Nazi occupation and Soviet control, he went into exile following the invasion of 1968. He had been embedded in the physical and intellectual spaces of the Czech capital, and it was a source of happiness that he could visit it freely following the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

He studied architecture, engineering and art and his research into the Baroque earned him a PhD at Charles University, but his thinking was also shaped by the philosopher and dissident Jan Patočka, and by the circle of intellectuals and that included the future president of the country, Václav Havel. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer was also a friend and influence.

Vesely was dedicated to his pursuit of knowledge, ahead if necessary of family life, sleep, food and comfort. Students arriving for the first supervision of the day might find him recently risen from the couch of his small office, amid a dense tobacco-tinged fug. But he would be unfailingly alert and insightful and, as the writer Carolyn Steel, an ex-student of his, says, “there would be moments when things opened up that were magical for anyone who experienced it”.

He could be warm and generous, witty, a good friend and wonderful company. He was an accomplished violinist. He was fascinated by the absurdities of the world around him. As Peter Carl, his closest collaborator for many years, puts it, “he could move from Heraclitus to the pets of the Politburo in a flash”. He fashioned a distinctive version of English, in which he invested ordinary-seeming words like “continuity” and “situation” with rich meanings, and developed pithy catchphrases: “Why to bother?” he would say about the false trails up which architects lead themselves, or rather, in his strong accent, “Vy to bozzair?” “It’s just a bloody potato,” he would say, of unconvincing student projects.

Skilled though he was with language, much of what was important to him was not verbal but expressed better in music, drawing and in the understandings that exist between words in spoken conversation. This might be one reason why he took 30 years to write his one book, Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation, eventually published in 2004. It is a dense read, but in it and his various articles can be seen someone who brought an unequalled breadth of culture and depth of thinking to his subject.

His honours and awards included an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which he received earlier this year.

He was married and divorced three times. His brother, Drahosh, a physicist and an important figure in his life, survives him.

• Dalibor Vesely, scholar of architecture, born 21 June 1934; died 31 March 2015

[Editor] 尹迎杰