James Trainor

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John Hejduk

John Hejduk

In a quiet and rather forlorn part of the Kreuzberg section of Berlin there is a tall apartment block that stands guard over the neighborhood’s inhabitants, eyeing their movements, surveying the progress of their lives and the life of the city.

Border Crossings, February 2003

Such anthropomorphizing might seem like excessive poetic license, but the tower and its squat flanking buildings do in fact meet and return the gaze of the passerby, their sunshaded windows suggesting the heavy-lidded eyes of mute totemic figures, with each silent mouth formed by the conjunction of a balcony and a beak-like canopy. The building is unusual in another regard, in that it is one of the very few realized buildings by John Hejduk, the American architect whose significant influence on late 20th-century architecture occurred mainly through the force of his ideas and writings, not through the building of buildings. To those who knew him, Hejduk, who died of cancer at the age of 71 in 2000, was a towering figure, a man whose physical bulk and thick South Bronx brogue belied a genuinely gentle and poetic nature.

Hejduk cut a singularly provocative path for himself, proposing that architecture could reclaim a narrative and symbolic life without being retrogressive, that it could tell humanity’s stories while avoiding pre-modern triumphalism and postmodern historical pastiche. Yet, unlike the contemporaries he was initially associated with in the 1960s (Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey), he realized early on that the primary responsibility of the architect was not to play midwife to more and more structures, but rather to stop and consider the human values that are collectively defined as “architecture.” The architect should be concerned with how to create a meaningful sense of place, in whatever medium available – drawings, models, texts, poems – before worrying about bringing more buildings into the world. For this reason, the main focus of his unconventional practice, besides his prolific output of drawings, poems and theoretical writings, was teaching, which occupied him for the 25 years he was dean of the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York. At Cooper he nurtured a generation of young architects who have since taken up the challenge of his example – Daniel Libeskind, Elizabeth Diller and Steven Holl, among others – asserting claims for architecture that reflect ethical and philosophical aspirations Hejduk held for the discipline.

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