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The Cultural Significance of Architecture: A conference in memory of Dalibor Vesely

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Title:    The Cultural Significance of Architecture: A conference in memory of Dalibor Vesely
Date:    Monday, 11 April 2016
Time:   09:30-18:00
Venue:  Emmanuel College, Queen’s Building, Saint Andrew’s Street Cambridge, CB2 3AP


Peter Carl
Eric Parry
Wendy Pullan

General Information:

This one-day conference will celebrate the work and legacy of Dalibor Vesely one year after he passed away. It will be held at the University of Cambridge and devoted to the theme of ‘The Cultural Significance of Architecture’. Speakers will be drawn from former colleagues and students; but the sessions are imagined to be large-scale 'seminars', inviting participation from the audience.  The contributions will be recorded and be available on the internet.

The Three Sessions:

Session 1: History and Philosophy of Architecture

This session takes its name from the MPhil and PhD Course founded by Dalibor and Joseph Rykwert at Cambridge.  The basic premise of the course was that architectural history embodied the conditions for cultural possibilities.  These latter were illuminated by phenomenological hermeneutics, in which the Heideggerian ‘world’ was clarified and given structure according to Merleau-Ponty’s account of embodiment.  The topics and style of interpretation pervade Dalibor’s book, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: the question of creativity in the shadow of production.  The argument is situated in current problems, ambiguities, conflicts, possibilities, but draws upon insights regarding early modernism, the eighteenth century Enlightenment, The European Baroque, the late middle ages and early renaissance and ancient Greece.  It is hoped that the panellists could comment upon the significance of the approach to their understanding of architecture’s role in the culture.


Session 2: Design and the European City

This session takes its inspiration from the studio-teaching of Dalibor, and in particular the visions of urban order he cultivated, firstly at the Architectural Association and then during his years at Cambridge.  Where the MPhil seminars concentrated upon the philosophical issues, the studios constituted a form of practical research into the concrete conditions of possible interventions in European cities, although it is possible to see that the strategy of ‘completing’ an urban order propitious for cultural richness – or depth of potential understanding, the Aristotelian bios theoretikos – was common to the projects.  The cities which were the topic of investigation included Cambridge, London, Paris, Prague, Leuven, Berlin and Vienna.  Situations from contemporary science, technology and finance were regularly placed in reciprocity with the primordial political and social conditions of civic life, often drawing upon recurring motifs such as the exploitation of what he termed ‘positive fragments’, sequential continuities, depth of block structure, movement from natural conditions to more ludic and agonic cultural situations, collaborative urban plans involving several projects and students, use of collage and unorthodox projections and the attunement to Surrealism and metaphor.  It is hoped that the panellists could comment on upon the vision of civic life conjured in this research and/or upon the teaching-methods. 


Session 3: Legacy, New Horizons

This session seeks to understand whether the rich legacy of Dalibor’s teaching, in philosophy, history or design, was ‘of its time’ or continues to inspire relevant work.  The so-called ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology corresponds to the Heideggerian emphasis upon ‘world’ over Cartesian perspectivism; and AI has finally realised that it is not rule-based milieux like chess or go that identify ‘intelligence’ but the capacity to recognise a friend, or to understand a table.  Both of these themes were important to Dalibor’s teaching.  Similarly, the advent of megacities pitched between transaction centres [in which architecture reverts to form in the service of economics] and slums [whose suffering harbours an intensity of involvements or claims the wealthy pay to avoid] suggests that the civic or humanist ideals for which Dalibor argued constitute a moral legacy which architects and thinkers develop according to the concrete case.  Any such morality implies a depth of cultural understanding which militates against the flattening effect of new paradigms for the whole such as ‘information’ or reifications of ‘east’ versus ‘west’.   It is hoped that panellists will draw upon their own work to suggest continuities with, or new horizons opened by, the rich body of themes left to us by Dalibor.

To donate to the Dalibor Vesely fund click here.