Architecture professor Christian Otto dies

March 29, 2013

Professor of architecture Christian F. Otto died of cancer on March 27. He was 72. As an architectural historian, his research included Modernism, 18th-century Central Europe, New York City, and urbanism. Known as a passionate and committed educator, he continued to teach and meet with graduate students during his illness. Otto joined Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in 1970.

“Chris Otto was a mainstay of the department's longstanding commitment to the teaching of the history of architecture and urban design to all of its students, whether those in B.Arch. and M.Arch. design degree programs or those pursuing advanced research and scholarship in HAUD through the M.A./Ph.D. program,” says Mark Cruvellier, architecture department chair and the Nathaniel and Margaret Owings Professor of Architecture.

Otto wrote, lectured, and taught on a range of time periods and architects. Among his publications are Weissenhof 1927 and the Modern Movement in Architecture (University of Chicago Press 1991), coauthored with Richard Pommer; and Space Into Light: The Churches of Balthasar Neumann (MIT Press 1979), the first major publication on Neumann in English. Otto was the editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians from 1974 to 1981. He also explored the connections between architecture and music, publishing on Bach and his surroundings and teaching National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars on Mozart's Vienna and on Prague.

“Henry Detweiler, Stephen Jacobs, and Chris Otto were the founding fathers of graduate studies in architectural history at Cornell,” says associate professor of architecture and Asian studies Bonnie MacDougall. “Chris's broad and detailed understanding of Modernism made him a most valued colleague and placed him at the very center of department intellectual life for more than 40 years.”

Among his peers, current students, and alumni, Otto was admired for his teaching skills and dedication to his students. He received Cornell’s Outstanding Educator and Paramount Professor awards during his career and was a faculty fellow with Campus Life Residential Programs.

“To Chris, the university was a family of learners, the most important members of which were students,” says longtime colleague Professor Henry Richardson. “He engaged them well beyond the classroom. His local and foreign study trips, such as ‘Going for Baroque,’ which he guided with great relish, were not only enjoyable but most revelatory. To be around Chris was to share in the richest of learning experiences. We will miss his sense of irony, great wit, and incisive insight.”

For more than two decades, Otto taught the Introduction to Architecture survey course to undergraduates — using it as a platform to help establish the role of history as a significant part of architectural and design discourse.

“Chris had the greatest capacity a teacher can have; he did not see students for what he thought they should be, but he encouraged us to be what we wanted to be,” says Sophie Hochhäusl, a current architectural history Ph.D. candidate. “In his tireless support for each of us he ensured that we had the best possible education to craft our own paths as designers and scholars, to live what occupied our minds and our hearts.”

“As his student, Chris forced you to think beyond the obvious in architecture to the causes latent therein, made all the more compelling by their near-invisibility,” says Richard Becherer (M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’80 HAUD). “He didn't obsess about what hovered above ground in a city. Rather his attention quickly turned to what was beneath, or behind it. He loved to talk about streets and their grids, neighborhoods, structure, money — and the flow of it — patronage, influence, and power. His writing, his history, his pedagogy, his practices of living set very high standards for his students indeed.”

Cruvellier says, “His presence is already deeply missed by current students and faculty colleagues alike, as well as by a legion of alums whose attestations leave no doubt as to his lasting impact.”

Otto was born in New York City and received degrees from Swarthmore College and Columbia University. He is survived by his wife Roberta Moudry ’81 (M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’95 HAUD) and four children.

By Aaron Goldweber

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