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  • Dara Schaefer

John Hejduk- Excavating the Soul of Architecture

Updated: Jan 8, 2019


John Hejduk (pronounced HAY-duck) could have been famous, but it was obvious he never cared about fame. He didn't want distractions- he was a revered architect, dean, and scholar, but unless you are an alumnus of Cooper Union, an architecture academic or historian, you have probably never heard of him. I had not when I applied to for architecture school over three decades ago in 1988. It took five years of being in his school, and another couple of decades out of the school to realize that I needed to sort out for myself, who the legendary architect was.


So, it is not from the vantage point of a scholar or a historian-- but from the vantage point of a seeker--- that I am trying to excavate the landscape of my memory, for who this enigmatic architect was and what John Hejduk’s legacy has meant to me.


SYNCHRONICITY

This past summer, after the unexpected loss of my dad, in going through old photos, I found one, from my graduation. I was 23, standing between my father and my dean, John Hejduk. That photo had a sneaky way of etching itself into my psyche. Just a few months later, in October I got an email from a Cooper classmate-- Steven Hillyer, the current director of the Cooper Union Architecture Archives. He was inviting me to include my thesis in a retrospective of 40 projects from the last 50 years. He also sent me the transcript of my final thesis crit. I hadn’t read it since graduation. I read it, and needed to dive deeply into it and to the project to write an abstract for the show.


Being that Hejduk left us with the profound legacy of delving into the personal narrative--- it felt a bit like he was nudging me. With both my kids away at college, one majoring in math, and the other in art, it seemed like suddenly he was conspiring with the universe, prodding me to revisit my Cooper experience- itself the intersection of art and math.


Carl Jung referred to unexplained and unexpected coincidences synchronicity. Synchronicity and I are becoming quite familiar with each other, like first-name-basis familiar.


So, it is from this vantage point-- that of an architect and artist; as a daughter who just lost her father; as a mother whose daughter has left to be an art major in college and whose son is finishing a math major, and as a lifelong seeker-- that I am reflecting on what John Hejduk’s legacy has meant in the realm of my own life.

I’ve been unearthing and dusting off his books--- Mask of Medusa, Bovisa, Architectures in Love, Sanctuaries,and Education of an Architect are scattered throughout my apartment on my bedside, coffee, and dining tables, or on order from Amazon. I reread the transcript Steven sent me from my final review a few times, I read the transcripts of other reviews, and I’ve been randomly reconnecting with classmates I haven’t spoken to in 3 decades (more synchronicity).


THE ARCHITECT AS DEVOTIONAL PRACTITIONER

A quick Google search today has a pretty short Wikipedia page. He was born in the Bronx in 1929 to Czech immigrants. He grew up in New York City and attended architecture school at Cooper Union starting in 1947. He came back to Cooper to teach in 1964. The following year he was appointed the head of the Architecture department and was appointed Dean in 1975, and remained at its helm until he died in 2000.


He was my thesis advisor in 1994. He had just returned to teach after taking a yearlong medical leave to treat the cancer which would ultimately claim his life six short years later. I remember this well because I actually delayed my graduation by one year, spending that year in the art school, so that I could have him as my thesis advisor when he returned.


John Hejduk had the mystical sensibility of a monk if you could imagine a monk who was almost seven feet tall with a heavy Bronx accent and a lisp so paradoxical to his intellect, it made him all the more of an enigma. He was a tall imposing figure, big tortoise colored glasses and skin so light, it seemed as though he had never spent a day outside in the sunshine.



He was someone, rather, who seemed to prefer to live and work in the shadows. The essence of his devotional practice was the search for grace and transcendence through the psychological excavation of the darker side of the soul. His structures all had dark souls.


He drew, in ink and watercolor, complete with dimensions in perfectly inked architecture lettering, what he called "structures." In truth, his structures are more like architectural personas imbued with the type of soul that writers assign to their fictional characters. Crosses, angels, martyrs, mothers of martyrs, mythological figures, and medusas are recurring themes. His architecture is suffused with a psychological soul probing that the other arts, like poetry and painting, have long since embraced.


DEMYSTIFYING THE MYSTICAL

In retrospect, we were being encouraged to find a way to demystify the mystical aspects of architecture through an intensive excavation of the landscape our own souls. He gave his thesis students projects each September to act as a catalyst for our yearlong endeavor. His assignments were inspired by poetry, music, and painting-- cubism, musical instruments, Aesop's fables, the biblical texts of Cain and Abel and of Jacob wrestling with the angel are a few examples.

My thesis year was inspired by a discovery he made while recovering from cancer--- that Caravaggio's still life paintings of fruit held mystical qualities of the divine. Our project was to investigate and incorporate those qualities into our architectural thesis explorations.


Hejduk's devotion to his practice was so profound, he felt more like a guru than a mentor. Every spring, starting from my first year, I would follow the rest of the students, like an exodus, out of the studio into the 3rd-floor lobby to hear his meditations on each thesis project. Like a sort of God on Judgment day, his presence always drew the entire architecture school to listen.


This is a small excerpt of what Hejduk said during my final review:

“…it sort of shakes my male foundations, you know, because I always refer to God as "He." And then when I see Dara, who takes…a photograph of a skin of an apple and makes it The Heavens. And then I realized that God was extremely frugal- I keep on repeating this story because it hit me—…“He made the heavens and then said, "Oh, my god, I can use that!”… “it's not so bad, right? And so I'll make the skin of an apple down there from the heavens above.”


Like any master of mysticism, he was most interested in where our projects brushed upped against the divine. I didn’t necessarily know that I was looking for it, and never would have found it, except for that I was his student, and it is telling that we all found it. Every single student in my class had a divine aspect to their project.


In order to be true to himself and his legacy, he needed to inspire his students to find and incorporate those aspects of the sublime in their architecture. He wanted us to be able to transmit the intangible within the vocabulary of tangible architectural elements.


He wanted us to know that it was (and is) possible to incorporate marvel using basic materials like bricks and mortar, foundations and columns and windows and doors. It is telling that the only building he had built at that time was the one for his students.

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THE FOUNDATION BUILDING

In Hejduk's aptly named "Foundation Building," he created a blueprint of his architectural vocabulary, an encyclopedia of ideas for his students to inhabit and internalize. Some of his early characters were born there.


The building itself sits on a triangular lot where the bowery splits into 3rd and 4th Avenues at Cooper Square. Dusk has become my preferred time to visit, when Hejduk’s modernist interior glows through Peter Cooper’s original brown brick 1880’s colonnaded façade. To navigate through its interior space is to commune with his characters.


My favorite space on the 3rd-floor always felt magical in that Harry Potter sort of way. Accessed from the lobby, through the threshold between the fire stair and the exterior wall, the space balloons open to reveal, at its far end--- a payphone. It was nestled beside the grand facade windows overlooking the perpetual street life of St Marks Place. The magical hidden space behind the stair, with its phone, was, before the age of cell phones, our only portal to the outside world.


THE ENCHANTED THRESHOLD

Hejduk understood then, what I am starting to parse out through revisiting the place where I studied under him--- that Cooper is a sort of enchanted threshold between each student's journey from nascency to a fully formed being. He did not just give us the tools we needed to become architects, he gave us the tools we needed to embark on the greater journey of life as architects.


He helped ingrain in us that architecture is more than spacial. That it is connected, in some larger way to the universe that created us. That we, as architects, are vessels for the universe to create what it needs. That whatever our path is, whether we are building buildings, raising children, teaching students, writing a blog, or making sculpture, that we are a part of expanding the primordial creative force that he helped nurture in us.

Many students don't even realize it, I am not even sure if I understood it when I was a student there, but his building is still his proxy. It is as if in every curve, in every column, in every stair, in every porthole window he is whispering in our ears--- "Look at me, feel me, internalize me. Take me with you on your future voyages. Channel me when you're searching for the mystical treasures imbued in a column or a stair or a curve or a telephone booth, or more importantly- your own soul."

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