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Henry Urbach, 2010. Photo: Winni Wintermeyer. Courtesy of SF MoMA.

Henry Urbach (1963–2019)

Architecture and design scholar, curator, and educator Henry Urbach died on September 14, after a years-long struggle with late-onset bipolar disorder, at the age of fifty-six. An advocate and cultivator of experimental architecture projects, Urbach opened a gallery in New York to provide a platform for architects such as LOT-EK, who transformed a cement-mixer into a media cocoon and lounge for his solo exhibition at the arts space in 2000, and Freecell Architecture, which constructed MoistSCAPE, a three-dimensional steel matrix inset with panels of living moss, in the gallery in 2004.

“The gallery was a calling, and a bit of a stretch,” Urbach told the Architect’s Newspaper in 2017. “I had no gallery experience and no money, but a lot of determination and, slowly but surely, people who got behind the idea, as artists and architects, as audience and patrons, and there was tremendous press support. I think I was very lucky.” During its run from 1997 to 2007, the gallery, Henry Urbach Architecture, staged fifty-five exhibitions and attracted the attention of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which recruited Urbach to work as its architecture and design curator.

Urbach’s first exhibition with the museum was “Your Tempo: Olafur Eliasson” (2007–08), which presented the artist’s BMW art car; made of steel and ice, the piece was exhibited in a walk-in freezer. He also curated the first museum exhibitions of work by Jürgen Mayer and Tobias Wong, as well as “Sensate: Bodies and Design” (2009) and “How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now” (2010–11), a collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro featuring historical artifacts, architectural models, newly commissioned artworks, and installations that included wine labels, French artist and designer Etienne Meneau’s decanters and carafes, and Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron’s designs for wineries in California and Spain.

In 2012, shortly before SFMoMA closed for three years to embark on a massive expansion, Urbach decided to return to the East Coast to head the Phillip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. While at the Glass House, Urbach collaborated with and encouraged artists such as Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya to engage with Johnson’s legacy. “Henry Urbach expanded architecture, not only by engaging other fields, but in how architecture could be viewed, experienced and practiced,” said Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, SFMoMA’s current architecture and design curator, who also worked for Urbach as a gallery assistant and as an assistant curator at SFMoMA.

Born in 1963 in Flemington, New Jersey, Urbach studied the history and theory of architecture at Princeton University. He earned master’s degrees in architectural design from Columbia University and in the history and theory of architecture from Princeton. Urbach had written about contemporary architecture and design for publications such as Artforum, the Village Voice, and the New York Times Magazine over the years, and he served as a contributing editor of Interior Design Magazine from 1997 to 2001. Since 2015, Urbach had been living in Tel Aviv where he was teaching at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design while he worked on several writing projects.

Commenting on his contributions to the field, Joseph Becker, SFMoMA’s associate curator of architecture and design, said: “Henry was a crusader and a pioneer. He was uncompromising in his vision—to push on the boundaries of art and architecture, to excite the sense, to provoke us out of our comfort zone. He asked us to think not just through the ideas of the built environment, but around them and against them. Every act of curating, teaching, or writing was a chance to dismantle a preconceived notion and think differently, deeper and with more curiosity, about the world around us.”

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