O. M. Ungers at Cornell: Panel describes a transformative time

News
March 23, 2007

When Oswald Mathias Ungers, a highly influential architect from Cologne, chaired the architecture department at Cornell in the 1970s, his tenure not only helped launch Cornell's architecture program internationally but also served as a catalyst for Ungers's career and its identification with postmodernism.

So said three Cornell panelists at a Feb. 22 symposium, "O.M. Ungers at Cornell, 1969-1983," at Sibley Hall.  

The event featured presentations by Professor Werner Goehner, Associate Professor Arthur Ovaska and visiting critic André Bideau, all in the Department of Architecture.  

Goehner said that Ungers first visited Cornell in 1965 and again in 1967 as a visiting critic, and was appointed chair of architecture in 1969, serving until 1975. Goehner presented an extensive listing of Ungers's work during the Cornell years, which included a number of academic publications and entries in architectural design competitions that became internationally known. He also attracted a globally diverse mix of students who worked under Ungers to complete their master’s theses, as well as many international visiting faculty members. These international guests have had a lasting influence on the college, Goehner said.  

Ovaska, who worked with Ungers for six years in Ithaca and Cologne, described his mentor in a way echoed by the other panelists, remarking, "In a certain way, for me to talk about Mathias, I have a hard time being critical because it's kind of like talking about your father."  

He said that Ungers stressed the importance of the concept of each project as "part of a larger cosmos, a larger order of form." Casting light on Ungers's perspectives as a theorist, he went on to show various works demonstrating Ungers's themes of transformation, interpretation, typology, and metamorphosis. For example, he said, Cornell's Sibley Dome was an addition but was designed in a way that makes it look like the building could exist in no other way.  

To Bideau, Ungers's career "relates the tradition of transatlantic exchanges, exchanges of architect avant-gardes going back and forth since the late 19th century," pointing to Frank Lloyd Wright, European modernism, the creation of Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, and postmodernism, or the "rereading of modernism." Bideau placed Ungers in a period when architecture was being reinstituted as a high art in America, returning to a classical form of modernism. His time at Cornell, he said, was a transformative time for Ungers's career and his identification with the international postmodern community. Bideau contended that his German influences stayed with Ungers, influencing the rest of his work while at Cornell.  

Well known for his often controversial designs, Ungers won a design competition in 2000 to redesign the museum complex of Berlin's Museum Island, in which he plans to significantly renovate buildings which have been untouched since the 1930s. The project is expected to be completed in 2010.