Dalibor Vesely (1934–2015)

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.