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IN MEMORIAM: Jerzy Soltan

By Alexandra C. Bell, Crimson Staff Writer

Jerzy Soltan, an esteemed architect and the Robinson, Jr., professor of architecture and urban design, emeritus, at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), died on Sept. 16 at his Cambridge home. He was 92.

Soltan first joined the GSD in 1959, when the dean at the time and another illustrious modernist, Josep Lluís Sert, invited him as a visiting critic. Two years later, he was appointed Professor of Architecture. He remained at the GSD in various guises until his death, educating and inspiring countless students with his Le Corbusier-influenced modernist vision and unique teaching style.

Gerald M. McCue, John T. Dunlop Professor of Housing Studies Emeritus at the GSD, first met Soltan around 1970 before joining Harvard in 1976.

“I had a chance to watch his teaching and the profound effect he had on students,” McCue said. “People were giving very practical problems...Soltan concentrated more on philosophical questions such as what should architecture be like and what language it speaks to people in.”

Former students of Soltan’s, many of whom have gone on to become famous figures in the world of architecture, also praised his dedication and freshness.

Michael E. Graves, an architect and designer and Schirmer professor of architecture, emeritus, at Princeton University, studied under Soltan in the late 1950s.

“Jerzy set himself apart from the other professors,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He established a relationship relative to each student’s work and knew all the issues of every project in the class. We always found Jerzy to be delightful, original and in the end, quite amusing.”

Another one-time student of Soltan’s at the GSD, Alan S. Chimacoff, also an architect and designer and professor of architecture at Princeton, said he came to Harvard because of a previous meeting with Soltan that had “enchanted” him. He agreed that studying under Soltan had been a unique experience.

“When [professors] are people you care about and revere, you are affected by them for your whole life,” he said. “The design studio is hand-to-hand combat basically. You got to know him very quickly...he was a great, big, lanky Polish bird, flapping and demonstrative.”

In 2002, Soltan was awarded the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, which is given annually by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

The jury’s statement described Soltan as “the personification” of the award.

“Possessing the rare ability to convey the most severe criticism with wit, love, and humility is a rare trait found amongst only the most passionate teachers,” it said. “Enabling students to envision more than the moment and to reach for something beyond themselves speaks volumes to Professor Soltan as an educator, architect, and person.”

Soltan was born in Latvia in 1913 and studied architecture at the Warsaw Technical Institute. He was drafted into the Polish army during World War II, captured by German soldiers, and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp for the rest of the war.

While in the camp, he started writing to Le Corbusier, whose work he had become enamoured of in Warsaw. By the time the war ended, he had been offered a position at Le Corbusier’s architectural firm in Paris, which he promptly accepted.

He returned to Poland in 1949 to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, but his modernist attitude was not popular with the post-war Communist government and he was, for a time, not permitted to teach architecture.

He came to Harvard in 1959, was given tenure in 1965, served as chair of the architecture department from 1967 to 1974, and retired in 1979. He regularly visited the GSD right up until he was 89.

Although he was more an educator than a practising architect during his years at Harvard, Soltan did design a house in 1968 with fellow GSD professor Albert Szabo, and, in 1970, worked on the plans for Salem High School. His association with Le Corbusier was also instrumental in persuading the Swiss-born architect to design the Carpenter Center at Harvard, which is the only Le Corbusier building in North America.

Soltan is survived by a daughter, Johanna, a son, Karol, and two grandchildren.

Funeral services were held here and in Warsaw; there will be a memorial service at Harvard later this semester.

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