Obituaries

Anthony Vidler, Architectural Historian Who Reshaped His Field, Dies at 82

Anthony Vidler, an architectural historian who, beginning in the 1960s, reshaped his field by setting aside dry chronologies of styles and movements for an interdisciplinary approach borrowing from psychoanalysis, French literary theory and cultural studies, died on Oct. 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

His wife, the historian Emily Apter, said the cause was B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Mr. Vidler, who was born in Britain during World War II, was part of a generation of European and Latin American architectural historians who arrived in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, bringing with them new, theory-driven viewpoints about architecture as a realm of ideas and not just design.

Sometimes cast as architecture’s version of the British Invasion, scholars like Mr. Vidler, Kenneth Frampton and Alan Colquhoun settled in New York City and in architectural programs at a small number of institutions, above all Princeton University, where Mr. Vidler taught for almost 20 years and remained affiliated for decades.

He also served as dean of the architecture schools at Cornell, from 1997 to 1998, and Cooper Union, from 2001 to 2013.

In scores of essays, monographs, books and exhibitions, Mr. Vidler wielded both his deep knowledge of 18th-century architecture and his sharp insights into the contemporary field to argue for a type of history that operated not at the superficial level of function or style but at a deeper, formal level of metaphor, juxtaposition and ideology.

“Architecture is usually presented as big glossy photographs of the final product, and I like to present architecture as a process of design and thinking about space and the way people use space,” he said in an interview for Brown University, where he taught in the mid-2010s. “I like to find all the little sketches, the bits of sketches on little table napkins, that were made during the process of design.”

He also reached beyond the standard confines of architectural criticism to bring thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin into the discussion. He wrote extensively about how Freud’s notion of the uncanny — the re-emergence of childhood fears in our adult lives — manifests itself in modern urban spaces.

He was a leading expert on the 18th-century French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who, he argued, brilliantly incorporated the social and political thought swirling around him into his bold, even utopian designs. He said much the same about James Stirling, whose work in postwar Britain moved architecture beyond modernist convention.

“Tony was very much a pioneer, in the Anglo-Saxon world, with regard to the origins of modern architecture in French classical and utopian culture,” Mr. Frampton, who taught at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, said in a phone interview.

Another way Mr. Vidler and his cohort broke with their field was with their interest in shaping architecture as it was being practiced around them. Soon after he arrived in the United States from England in the mid-1960s, he joined the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, an organization, led by the American architect Peter Eisenman, that sought among other things to bring new social and cultural ideas into architecture.

Their efforts were successful: Around the same time that writers and scholars like Mr. Vidler were trying to bring theory into architecture, a generation of architects, among them Rem Koolhaas, Wolf Prix and Bernard Tschumi, was eager to receive it.

“His ability to look at the very big picture with an incredible informed eye both philosophically and visually was fascinating,” said Mr. Tschumi, who first encountered Mr. Vidler’s work while teaching at the Architecture Association, a school in London, and who later designed major buildings in New York, including Alfred J. Lerner Hall at Columbia and the Blue Condominium on the Lower East Side. “It certainly had an influence on me.”

Anthony Vidler was born on July 4, 1941, in Mere, a town about 100 miles southwest of London, and raised in and around the town of Shenfield in Essex, to the northeast. His father, Stafford, was a surveyor, and his mother, Enid (Yardley) Vidler, was a homemaker.

As a very young child, Anthony witnessed a German air raid on a nearby city. That experience, he later said, helped spark his interest in the impact of social and political change on architecture.

So did his perambulations, by bicycle, across the Essex countryside. An adept sketch artist, he would park himself beside a ruined church or an old farmhouse for hours, taking in, with his drawing pad, the way the structure fit within its surroundings.

At Cambridge, which he attended on a scholarship, he studied under the influential historian Colin Rowe and first befriended Mr. Eisenman. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1963 and a diploma in architecture, an advanced degree, a year later. He later received a doctorate in architectural theory from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He married Professor Apter in 1984. Along with her, he is survived by two daughters, Anna and Sarah Vidler; a son, Nicolas Apter-Vidler; his brother, Richard; and three granddaughters. His son Ben died before him.

Mr. Eisenman brought Mr. Vidler to Princeton in 1965. He taught there until 1993, when he was hired as chairman of the art history department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Vidler in a Princeton University classroom in an undated photo. He taught at Princeton for almost 20 years and remained affiliated for decades later.Credit…via Princeton University School of Architecture Archives

After stepping down as dean at Cooper Union in 2013, he taught first at Brown and then at Yale, while also continuing to teach occasionally at Princeton.

Among Mr. Vidler’s abiding concerns was the dissolution of modern society and the anxiety-inducing alienation we often feel in what pass for public spaces today. But he also held out hope that, as society became more in thrall to spectacle and image, architecture might take on a bigger role in shaping it for the better.

“Where the spectacle has generally had the effect of distancing the public from culture,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1998, “for architecture, it has had the paradoxical result of increasing attentiveness.”

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