Kurt Forster, scholar and former Getty Research Institute and CCA director, dies at 89


Kurt Forster, scholar and former Getty Research Institute and CCA director, dies at 89

Kurt W. Forster circa 2006 (Michel Boulet/Courtesy CCA)

Swiss architecture professor Kurt Walter Forster died of cancer on January 6 at his home in New York, aged 89. He is remembered for directing the doctoral studies program at Yale School of Architecture; his role as director of the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Santa Monica, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, and Venice Architecture Biennale; and also for his tenure as a mentor to myriad renowned scholars at ETH Zurich.

“Kurt Forster was a towering figure in the history of architecture,” said Sylvia Lavin, who taught with Forster at Princeton. “His foundational and even magisterial publications on everything from the Italian Renaissance to the oeuvres of Schinkel, Le Corbusier, and Frank Ghery anchor the field in deep erudition,” Lavin said in a statement.

“He was just as influential as a leader of institutions; as the first Director of the Getty Research Institute, Kurt built a deeply interdisciplinary intellectual community that, in turning away from traditional art historical concerns and methods, paved the way for the growing centrality of the arts and architecture to the humanities in general,” Lavin continued. “He continued to reposition architecture as key to the history of ideas during his tenure as Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a commitment he also pursued as a teacher at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and an innumerable list of other august universities. What drew these many contributions together was Kurt’s extraordinary, rhetorical prowess. He could take any topic, turn it into an intoxicating, literary tale.”

Forster was born in Zurich in 1935, and later studied architecture in Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Florence, and London. Between 1960–67, he was a professor of architecture at Yale, and later Stanford between 1967 and 1982. He also held teaching appointments at Princeton, UC Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT.

In 1984, Forster became the first director of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. It was here where he forged a kindred friendship with Frank Gehry, which led him to Jean-Louis Cohen, another renowned professor for whom Forster wrote a heartfelt remembrance for in AN after his own passing.

In 1992, Forster returned to his alma mater, ETH Zurich, to direct the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, until he retired in 1999. That year, Forster became director of the CCA, where he remained for five years. In 2004, Forster was appointed by Robert A.M. Stern to direct the Yale School of Architectures doctoral studies program. That same year, Forster directed the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Throughout his prolific career, Forster wrote definitive texts about Alberti, Giulio Romano, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry, Carlo Scarpa, Herzog & de Meuron, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Andrea Palladio, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Giuseppe Terragni, Karl Schinkel, Aby Warburg, and other architects and artists.

Forster holds an honorary doctorate from The New School for Social Research in New York, and was president of the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Zurich.

Update: This article was amended on January 12 to include Sylvia Lavin’s quote that was shared by Princeton SoA on social media.