Campus & Community

Eduard Franz Sekler, 96

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 2, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Eduard Franz Sekler was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

In 1953, after receiving his architectural degree in his native city of Vienna and his Ph.D. in art history from the University of London’s Warburg Institute, Eduard Sekler came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. Based at the Fogg Museum, he studied schools of design that brought him into contact with such architects and designers as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and Mies van der Rohe. Two years later, in 1955, the architect and dean Josep Lluís Sert invited him to join the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From his first book on Christopher Wren, Professor Sekler proved himself to be a distinguished historian of architecture. For the next 52 years, he published numerous works and more than 200 influential articles on design and the built environment, especially in its visual, principally urban, forms. He was an expert on such modern architects and city planners as Walter Gropius, Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, and Josef Hoffmann. Trained both as an architect and a historian of architecture, Sekler saw, and believed deeply, that scholarship and practice constitute a continuum.

In 1962 Sekler was appointed Coordinator of Studies in Harvard’s first visual studies program. In 1963, this program took root in the newly completed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building designed by Le Corbusier in North America. From the outset, and against resistance, he advocated for visual education. He nudged into being a curriculum that opened Harvard’s liberal arts education to the senses and to modes of thought and expression that could thrive in the Academy alongside those of language and mathematics.

In 1966 Professor Sekler became the Carpenter Center’s first director, a position he held for the next decade. During this time, he was instrumental in building up the faculty, designing a curriculum, and formulating the new concentration, Visual and Environmental Studies, which became a department in 1968, with Sekler as its first chair. He held a joint appointment with the Graduate School of Design, managing conflicts with his fine Austrian diplomatic skills. Today, as he foresaw, interdisciplinary scholarship no longer aims to separate theory from practice, the arts from the built space, the visual from the environmental.

With William Curtis, Sekler co-authored the definitive history of the CCVA building, “Le Corbusier at Work: The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts” (1978). He retired in 1994 as Professor of Architecture and in 1991 as Osgood Hooker Professor of Visual Art but continued to teach until 2004. Sekler taught intensively, in a serious, Old-World way, focusing his students on original source material while encouraging them to find their own topics of research and interest. As in the tradition of the Bauhaus, he integrated drawing and painting (especially watercolor) with film and photography, understanding both the studio arts and filmmaking as integral to the education of visual literacy.

Being a firm believer in teaching about things one has seen or experienced, Sekler traveled widely. He did so not just to do research or take photographs for his lecture courses on architectural history and seminars on historic urban spaces but as part of his consulting work on historic preservation. His view of architecture was wide and deep, ranging from the Modernist achievements of Europe to the historical treasures of Nepal, which he sought not just to elucidate but to protect.

As an architect and preservation consultant, Sekler possessed a keen visual acuity when assessing the significance and beauty in architecture everywhere. He understood the specificity of cultural relationships between society and its built environment. He acknowledged the diverse approaches, meanings, and subtleties drawn from different contexts and knew that the right answer for one place would not necessarily apply to another. Sekler acted as a restoration consultant, and, following catastrophic events, he always made great efforts to look at all aspects of a specific case before offering a community a nuanced series of approaches as they decided if they should restore what was lost or build anew.

Sekler’s collaborative work with UNESCO in Nepal resulted in a 1977 master plan for the conservation of cultural heritage in the Kathmandu Valley and in the listing of this historic place as a World Heritage Site. With former Harvard students, he co-founded the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust to restore endangered buildings vulnerable to earthquake or other environmental damage.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Scientiarum et Artium Europaea, and a fellow of the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Sekler was a recipient of many grants, awards, and honors, including an honorary doctorate from the ETH Zürich in 1988, the 1990 Tschumi Prize for Excellence in Architectural Education and Criticism from the International Union of Architects, the Royal Nepalese decoration Gorkha Dakshin Bahu in 1998, and the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art in 2005. He served on the Austrian curia for the arts, whose members act as advisors to the President. To Sekler’s delight, a few years before his passing, he was made an honorary member of the Vienna Secession.

Throughout his life, Sekler made clear his allegiance to original manuscripts and drawings, especially to preliminary architectural sketches, and he drew superbly himself. His annual Christmas cards, typically of Austrian churches and village squares, awed and delighted his friends. His stubby yellow pencils testified to how he did wonderful things with scant resources.

A beloved teacher, Sekler’s influence spread widely as many of his students became architects, educators, or administrators themselves. Over the years, his ever-expanding cohort of former students, as well as a steady stream of architects and historians from around the globe, would stay in touch and send him their articles. They would also visit his office, packed with books from floor to ceiling, bulging with papers, pamphlets, and lecture materials.

Sekler was a bemused, lovely, and kind person, whose elegant brilliance warmed every room. He is survived by his wife, Mary Patricia May Sekler.

Respectfully submitted,

Giuliana Bruno
Alfred Guzzetti
Toshiko Mori
Mark Mulligan (Wentworth Institute of Technology)
Robb Moss, Chair

In the preparation of this Minute, the committee is indebted to the assistance of Professors Laura Frahm and John Stilgoe.