Ulrich Franzen (1921–2012)

Ulrich Franzen in Rye, New York, in 1962. Photo: Ezra Stoller.

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED by the work of Ulrich Franzen, because to me it represents an as-yet poorly understood transformation and expansion of the legacy of architectural modernism. Franzen’s work certainly wasn’t postmodernist, and his most famous buildings, such as the Philip Morris headquarters or his buildings for Hunter College, both in New York, are well known for their kind of late-modern, Brutalist style. Like many other prominent architects of his generation, he had trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius after World War II, and so there was no question that he was steeped in the more orthodox traditions of modernism.

And yet his work also reflected a whole range of wider influences. He had a lifelong interest in art, in particular—he actually studied art history before moving on to architecture—and he valued having a connection with art in his projects and working with artists in collaborative way. The Philip Morris building, for example, had a sculpture gallery on the ground floor that was open to the public. But he was also the president of the Architectural League in New York for many years, and he used this position to exhibit artists, commission work, and undertake collaborations. When I interviewed him as part of an exhibition I organized for Harvard focusing on the legacy of his generation at the school, he spoke at great length about his work at the League. I think he had a real commitment to expanding architecture as an institution in a way that encompassed art, and he had a major impact on the work and careers of several artists, Les Levine among them.

And the most interesting of his projects, for me, clearly reflect the influence of artists like Levine, who were so actively exploring new technology and media at the time. These were a series of stores he did for the fashion company Paraphernalia. They showed an obsession with weird new technologies; it was as if he were dealing with retail space as a kind of art environment. There were motion sensors that triggered slide projectors, and graphics on all the surfaces—the clothes themselves were almost hidden. He managed to produce these incredible interactive environments. I think that through his work at the League, Franzen reinvented himself in a way that brought him, and maybe architecture more generally, closer to art. You can trace the influence of his education, a kind of modernist technical and tectonic bent, throughout his work, but somehow he was also able to open up a totally different discourse about the scope of architecture. He pushed both fields toward a kind of collapse of the technocratic and artistic that could have only come from within architecture, and in a sense, he anticipated so many of the hybrid art-architecture practices we see today.

Michael Meredith is a founding principal of MOS Architects, based in New York.