Hubert Damisch passed away on December 14, 2017 in Paris, at the age of 89. He was no stranger to the Anglophone readers, as several of his volumes have been translated. In addition to his path-breaking and widely successful The Origin of Perspective and his initial book Theory of /Cloud/, two collections of his writings on architecture have been published in the recent years – Skyline: The Narcissistic City, and Noah’s Ark, an anthology prefaced by Anthony Vidler.
Even before this wave of translations, Damisch had a particularly intense relationship with the United States. His friendship with Columbia University’s art historian Meyer Schapiro was a determining factor in his shift from jazz music–he played the clarinet and the saxophone–to scholarship. Then, his encounter with Rem Koolhaas at Cornell University, while his wife Teri Wehn was hunting for the postcards that would illustrate Delirious New York with Madelon Vriesendorp, was no less decisive in his discovery of contemporary architecture. He was instrumental in having Koolhaas’ manifesto published in its first edition–the French one, before being amongst the earliest critics who thoroughly considered his ideas and his designs.
Escaping every conventional characterization, Damisch cannot be profiled as an art historian or as a philosopher, but rather as a theorist–as announced by his maiden book–and a voracious visual observer, navigating between art, architecture, photography, and film. Often a reluctant pedagogue, as if he was running the risk of losing his elegance by teaching, he was one of the most inspiring educators of his generation in Europe.
The knowledge-hungry architects of my generation discovered his thought at the dawn of the École des Beaux-Arts, when he published a strangely elongated booklet in 1964 featuring his interpretation of Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire raisonné. Altogether structural and structuralist, this pungent analysis revealed his ability at transforming architectural elements into “theoretical objects”. After having entertained over the years an extraordinary conversation with the painter Jean Dubuffet, he encountered Jean Prouvé, with whom he opened an intimate dialogue, as well as with Koolhaas and other contemporary architects. With them, he discussed the work of Robert Mallet-Stevens and Le Corbusier. He examined their designs as acutely as he looked at the paintings of Piero della Francesca or Luca Signorelli.
Unlike many significant figures in the humanities, especially in France, who have kept their eyes downcast in respect to architecture, or have looked down at it from the Olympian height of their discipline, Damisch has been able to discern without condescension, but not without wit, its modes of generation, as well as its intersections with literature, art, and photography, deconstructing the economy of its metaphoric exchanges with philosophy and psychoanalysis.
Rather than insisting on the role Damisch has played as a mentor and as a friend for me and some of my contemporaries, I would simply say that in Paris, during the 1970s and the 1980s, most architects aspiring to break with the anti-intellectualism of the Beaux-Arts and with the sociological sectarianism that had replaced it, found in his seminar an exhilarating place of reflection and exchange. Thanks to the weekly sessions held during nearly four decades at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he taught alongside Roland Barthes and Louis Marin, he helped many architects to reconsider themselves by escaping from the zero-sum game in which the introduction of theory could only be achieved at the expense of the designed or built form.
In 2012, Damisch’s only venture into fiction was entitled Le Messager des îles (The Messenger of the Isles), and it is tempting to see in his readings of architecture not a unique corpus, but rather an archipelago within a historical narrative open to aesthetics, but free from the weight of the ‘scholarly’ rhetoric thanks to the eloquence and the charm of his writing. But nemo propheta in patria sua, meaning, no one is a prophet in his own land. It is a telling paradox that the only existing anthology measuring the breadth of his contribution to the discourse of architecture is not available to French audiences, who may still access a range of penetrating but scattered pieces, waiting to be collected in what could one day become the opera omnia architectonica, or the collected works on architecture, of an unforgettable thinker.