Earlier this month, The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) gave a preview of what to expect at the John Hejduk exhibition, now showing at The Cooper Union. Seven works from the New York-born architect are on display inside with his memorial to Jan Palach exhibited outside in Cooper Square Park.
The exhibition offers insight into Hejduk’s career as an architect, teacher, and person. Presented as newspaper clippings, poetry, photography books, and drawings (from the architect himself in some cases) the exhibition demonstrates Hedjuk’s pedagogical contribution—showcasing theoretical work as well as built projects. Here, “program” takes precedence, as Hejduk conceived radical programmatic concepts, imagined at the time as never-to-be-built projects, or otherwise manifesting in stories.
Hejduk was the founding dean of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. There he was able to spread his ideas during his 25-year tenure. “The small scale of Cooper Union enabled him to bring forth a more ‘precise’ culture, where craft, making, and representational tools were diversified, and where their instrumentality was put to focus, Nader Tehrani, the current dean of the school, told AN.
Ideas and concepts with Hejduk, however, progressed to more than just that. In 1988, Douglas McGill wrote in the New York Times: “a strange thing has begun to happen: many of Mr. Hejduk’s imaginary buildings have begun to be built.”
Seven of these built works, some ephemeral, some not, have been photographed by Hélène Binet, Hejduk’s photographer of record. Steven Hillyer, director the school’s archive, worked with Binet to select what photos to exhibit. To Tehrani, the photographed works represent the episodic nature of his career—phases which were “more diverse than a single narrative.”
“As such, whereas the Berlin Tower project extends his preoccupation with the fabrication of characters, often through anthropomorphism (and zoomorphism), the wall house emerges from a different (and earlier) trajectory that deals with the elements of architecture in their abstract and figurative potentials, in some way extending the modern experiments of Le Corbusier where Corb could not take them,” said Tehrani.
“It’s like a traveling repertory theater,” Hejduk said of his buildings to McGill in 1988. “They come into the town, they do what they have to do, and they leave to go to the next place. I love that.” One of those works is the Jan Palach Memorial, one of Hejduk’s most provocative sociopolitical works which comprises two structures: House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide, both of which include 49 spikes erected onto timber cuboids. The pieces memorialize Jan Palach, a Czech dissident who set himself on fire in 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
First constructed in Atlanta by Georgia Tech students and alumni under the supervision of Professor James Williamson in 1990, the memorial traveled to Prague the following year. Twenty-five years later, it was realized again in Prague as a permanent installation adjacent to Jan Palach square, being built as an entirely new construction in stainless steel and Corten steel. Now the design has been erected in Cooper Square (a time-lapse can be viewed below). The gravitas of Hejduk’s work is still relevant today.
“This is a work that honors an ultimate sacrifice in the face of extraordinary oppression as well as the apathy that can often accompany it,” Williamson told AN. “And we don’t have to look as far as the Ukraine or Syria for its topicality; we can simply turn on the latest evening news to watch oppression unfold.”
“My father was incredibly dedicated to human rights and the social contract,” said Renata Hejduk, John’s daughter, speaking to AN. “The pieces stand as representations that speak to injustice everywhere and anywhere and the power of the human will and the fight for freedom and tolerance.”
Tehrani meanwhile, added that “it was important to undertake the opportunity to exhibit the memorial “if only to help historicize John Hejduk from a perspective that we can now appreciate with critical eyes. The Cooper Union has not had that opportunity to date, and this can become a moment to bring key intellectuals, collaborators, and alumni to voice some of their thoughts as they look back on this legacy.”
The exhibition will be on view through April 29, 2017, in the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery at The Cooper Union. Visitors will have more time to take in the Jan Palach Memorial, which will be displayed until June 11. “We are hoping,” said Hillyer, “that this will be the first of many installations realized by the school.”