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