Eduard Sekler, 96, first director of Harvard’s Carpenter Center
Eduard Sekler’s love of architecture began when he was a child in Vienna, gazing at the city’s visual history as he rode atop his father’s shoulders on walks through the streets. “There seemed to be something wonderful about the idea of designing a building that would actually be built,” he told the Harvard Gazette in 2004.
He became an architect and much more: an author and lecturer, a consultant who helped to preserve structures in places as far away as Nepal, and a founder of Harvard University’s visual and environmental studies department. He also was the first director of the Carpenter Center at Harvard, and while serving on the Graduate School of Design faculty for about 50 years, he influenced generations of architects whose work fills cities around the world.
For Dr. Sekler, the guidance and insights he shared about creating buildings remained “concerned with the place of the human being in nature, in the cosmos,” he recalled in a 1991 interview with Gerald McCue, a former dean of the faculty of design. “I have always tried to tell the students that they have to ask themselves: How does what I design make the lives of the people who will use it better and happier? One ought not to forget that fundamental question.”
Dr. Sekler, who was the Osgood Hooker professor of visual art emeritus and professor of architecture emeritus, died in Mount Auburn Hospital on May 1 of complications from a fall. He was 96 and lived in Cambridge.
A memorial lecture in his honor is planned for November at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. After Dr. Sekler died, former students from around the world sent e-mails to his wife, Pat, praising his profound impact, his friendship, and his role as “a source of inexhaustible inspiration.”
“He was always bringing books into the classroom,” she said. “If he was talking about something from medieval times, he would bring whatever material was available to make things real to his students, to entice them to use the libraries.”
Dr. Sekler was known for assigning students projects that sent them out of the classroom to study a building’s origin and its context as a structure within a community. In the interview with McCue, he recalled asking students “to do a critical and analytical study of a building in the Boston region using primary source material. In other words, they have to go to the site and make sketches, take their own photographs. Of course, they can use whatever is available; if plans exist, they’re lucky. If not, they have to make measured drawings, as well as go through all the research processes that one would as an architect if one had to do something with that building: deed searches, and so on.”
When the American Institute of Architects honored Dr. Sekler, it praised him for enriching the education of his students “with his ability to recreate architecture and history from within. He shows it as an integral part of the social, political, and cultural conditions that form the essential forces which shape buildings and cities.
The topics of a pair of Dr. Sekler’s early essays and lectures, “On the Spiritual in Architecture” and “In Search of Architectural Principles,” were recurrent themes in his work. “All my later teaching has been a continuation of this original search and a recognition that there is no point in discussing such principles in the abstract,” he told McCue, adding that “there must be a continuous interaction between word and object, between architectural experience and analytical thinking about it.”
Eduard Franz Sekler was born in Vienna in 1920. His parents, Eduard Jakob Sekler and the former Elisabeth Demmel, were actors, and Dr. Sekler — whose older sister died in an epidemic after the end of World War I — was raised as an only child. His father, who also lived to 96, was still acting in small roles when he died.
“His father was a great believer in beautiful elocution and taught many people,” Dr. Sekler’s wife said. “I think Eduard’s love of language came from his father and his mother. He had great respect for the spoken word as well as the written word.”
The inspiration of architecture, meanwhile, could be found everywhere. “If you grow up in Vienna, you can’t help but be impressed with what’s there,” Pat said.
Before he studied architecture, however, Dr. Sekler’s love of sailing prompted him to spend half a year working with a boatbuilder, from whom he learned about “handling staff, timber, and working with machines,” he once wrote. The experience and those lessons informed his later work, though he also realized that landlocked Austria “had little future for a beginning shipbuilder.”
He graduated in 1945 from the Vienna University of Technology before moving to England, where he received a doctorate three years later from London University’s Warburg Institute. He arrived at Harvard in 1953 as a Fulbright scholar and was appointed a visiting professor of architecture in 1955. Dr. Sekler became a professor of architecture in 1960, served as director of the Carpenter Center from 1966 to 1976, and was the first chairman of the visual arts department that he cofounded.
Among his prominent architecture projects through those years were restoring a church in Vienna that had been damaged by bombs during World War II, and designing public housing projects in Vienna. He also worked on the design of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York City, including designing furniture for the building.
His books included “Wren and His Place in European Architecture” (1956), about the acclaimed British architect Christopher Wren, who lived in the 1600s and 1700s. Dr. Sekler also wrote “Research and Criticism in Architecture” (1957), “Josef Hoffmann: The Architectural Work” (1985), and coauthored with William Curtis “Le Corbusier at Work: The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts” (1978).
Dr. Sekler “was very conscious of a city as a place you were moving through from one place to another, and how it affects you as you move through it,” said his wife, the former Mary Patricia May, whom he married in 1962. He often photographed buildings on their world travels, and she shot a series of photos of him shooting photos of buildings.
A service has been held for Dr. Sekler, who leaves no other immediate survivors. He will be buried Sept. 29 in a cemetery in Vienna, in his family’s plot.
Dr. Sekler lectured around the world, but one trip proved life-changing. In 1962, the year he married, Dr. Sekler made his first trip to Nepal. “It was the way it had been for centuries — a beautiful valley filled with happy, peaceful people. It seemed like Shangri-La,” he told the Harvard Gazette in 2004.
He subsequently led a UNESCO team that worked to conserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the Kathmandu Valley, and he founded the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, which safeguards the region’s architectural heritage.
His many trips there and intellectual investment became an enduring part of his life and legacy.
“When we got married, I only got half of Eduard,” his wife recalled with a laugh. “Half of him stayed in Nepal.”