A Picture of Diane Lewis

(Notes for “Conceiving the Plan” symposium held at Cooper Union Houghton Gallery, April 7, 2022. Organized by Yael Hameiri Sainsaux, architect, in memory of Diane Lewis (1951 – May 2, 2017): New York architect, author, and Professor, Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union.)

I will try to outline of Diane Lewis’ understanding of architecture as a discipline and a practice.

First, Diane represented the conviction that both of these things, architecture as a historical branch of knowledge and as a professional practice, are folded together. Any falsity in the way you practice — compromising one’s ideals, serving corrupt clients, supporting regressive institutions– will be registered as a falsity in the work. And the question of falsity, of betrayal, is very real. The architect is oriented by her ideals, by her relationship to and critique of power. We learned from Diane that architecture is political. Whose side are you on? This was the question underscored by the political upheaval of 1968. And for Diane some architects were on one side and some on the other. And Postmodernism was the physical expression of the falsity of those on the other side.

I will describe the ethos of Cooper Union and New York in Diane’s time.

Knowing the unwritten rules of one’s ethos is being urbane… prized by Diane above all. Being urbane is the habitus, the operating mode, of urban life. “Urbane” is inscribed into urbanity: this is one of Diane’s teachings.

Being urbane is following the unwritten rules. One must have style. I’m saying obvious things here. One must be clear, respectful, polite. I never heard Diane say “you are wrong.” But she certainly would not remain silent if someone said something she disagreed with. Diane’s rhetorical mode was incorporation, meaning, she would claim to agree with you and then advance a theory that subsumed your position and made it obsolete, even if true in some limited sense. This creates very interesting critiques: everyone is agreeing but actually neutralizing the other critics. You adopt the opponent’s terminology and then change the meaning. It is important to react with style to disrespectful behavior. Diane greatly admired those who knew what to do in such situations. Strong figures like Diana Agrest, Israel Seinuk, Richard Meier.

In Diane’s view: if an opponent has a chink in their armor, if there’s an advantage to be taken, then certainly one must be astute enough to take advantage of it. This is part of the ethos. It isn’t personal.

In his book from 1968, “The Empty Space,” the British theatrical director Peter Brook describes the experience of his first Broadway play. At the opening party everyone was very gay, festive. Someone told him, at the end of the party, that the following day some of the lawyers present at the party would be suing him. And they were truly enjoying themselves at the party, truly congratulating him, this night before. That is an ethics that one must come to understand if one wants to practice architecture in midtown, for example.

We are talking about ethics. I think that this is one of the most fundamental convictions she transmitted: that architecture practice is not just an ethical practice, it is an ethics, because architecture and architecture practice are the same. Architecture is the embodiment, the armature for, civil society, for democracy.

But the politics, ethics, and democracy she understood wasn’t, for example, the practice of backroom compromise or congenial cooperation. It was agonistic, in the way that Chantal Mouffe describes the democratic process: a constant struggle between opponents, not for domination but for influence. And the ethics was an ethics of arete, what Hanna Arendt writes about: excellence or highest virtue in the performance of something demanding. Since there is no absolute standard of excellence, it is established by competition between rivals. Competition not for dominance, but in establishing and exemplifying the terms of excellence. Cooper, and New York, was an ethos of agon and arete.

Diane was a teacher … As most of us know, a teacher is a bard, part of the oral tradition. An oral tradition leaves no trace except in the memory of the listener… except when there is the good fortune to have video and sound documentation, as we have thanks to Merill Elam and Helen Han. Their documentation of Diane lecturing has priceless value. But as lengthy as their video is, it is a drop in the ocean of Diane’s verbal transmission, which most of us here have received. Oral transmission can be stronger and more accurate than written transmission: it depends upon making a psychical impact in the listener- a memory indent. And that impact on memory is often a truer recording surface than letters in a book. Diane’s writings are brilliant but not systematic. And her professional work is, in my opinion, more like notes towards a way of practice than a paradigm of practice: for reasons, probably, that we cannot get into. Her primary transmission was the spoken word.

One thing about oral transmission, about the bard’s craft: it is possible and even perfectly fine to contradict oneself. I remember when Steven Holl played a cassette tape of one of Lou Kahn’s lectures, when I was an apprentice at his studio. Steven said to me, at one point in the lecture… listen! …. And at another point …. Listen here! Do you hear how he contracts himself!

What I learned from Steven, at that moment, is that truth can be transmitted through contradiction.

Also fundamental for every bard: the way of speaking, the rhythm and emphasis. This is what creates the “memory indent.” Diane called me Lynch, twisting her face to emphasize the twisted sound of the name. It was like stamping your foot while saying someone’s name. I heard her call other students by name more gently, so there was some kind of teaching there too. Merill Elam and Helen Han’s video is brilliantly filmed: as Diane pounds the table and slices the air we are drawn into her depth of field. She taught through this rhythm and this percussion. Her way of speaking: more trochee than iamb. A sequence of stoppages. Pounding in the nail of the teach-ing.

The first thing this way of speaking communicated: the decisiveness of the architectural act. The architectural act is like John Searle’s idea of the speech act. When the judge says “guilty” and hammers the bench with the gavel it is not just a word. It is an act performed almost magically, through the transmission of a mechanism that receives the act. So it is for us. The architect draws a line… done! It will be so! And the mechanism of the building process transmits that act into reality. “The issue within the history of the most powerful acts of architectural urbanism is the issue of what program belongs on what site. The most important architectural act is that of proposing a civic humanist institution” in a certain place, in a certain spatial configuration, expressed in plan and section.

The debate regarding typology

This idea of the architectural act was a proposition that Diane laid on the table: her contribution to an ongoing debate between Rossi, Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, and Raimund Abraham regarding type.

If we wanted to go through this conversation systematically we would start with the 19th Century architectural typologists that Rossi rebutted. But for time reasons we start with Hejduk’s audacious proposition that the most fundamental task of architecture is the creation of new programs. “Audacious” because, historically speaking, to my knowledge, architects played a minor or nonexistent role in the definition and shaping of the new programs of the 18th and 19th Century (arcade, universal exposition, sanatorium, poorhouse, railway terminal, phalanstery, and so on) and of the 20th Century, with a few important exceptions (co-housing, the shopping mall). Most new programs of the 20th and 21st century are technical or commercial. Architects did not invent the data center, the multiplex theater, and so on. So what did Hejduk mean by his claim? I think that he meant to challenge the Rossian perspective that type is independent of function. However, Hejduk spoke about “program” instead of “function,” to avoid the trap of functionalism, of mechanistic and behaviorist thinking. He translated the word “function” into the dry working language of the architect. He spoke about the architect’s laundry list: the program.

But, in the end, for Hejduk, it wasn’t type, it wasn’t function, and it wasn’t program in any technical sense. The fundamental task of the architect was the creation of new characters, dramatis personae. Hejduk’s idea of a program was, for example, the “house for the inhabitant who refused to participate.”

And for Diane? Her response to this chain of thinking– generic functional typological classification, Rossian typology, program, and character or persona– without calling attention to its originality, without giving it a different name than “program,” Hejduk’s adopted term, was the architectural utterance. The act of placing a certain program at a certain place in a certain configuration, communicated in the architectural language of plan and section. Diane affirmed that this was the architect’s most critical task. There is still the implication of generalizability, of wider implications, of transmissibility of knowledge, but there isn’t actually any notion of typology. Nonetheless, Diane writes that, in her studio, students are asked to “reflect on memorable and definitive new typologies.”

 It has taken us a long time to shake off Rossi’s influence and the very idea of type.

We can look at other examples of ongoing debate at Cooper: renga-like conversations between architectural thinkers across space and time. (Renga is the classical Japanese collaborative poem where one poet writes a stanza and another continues, according to fixed rules).

The autonomy of architecture

A position coming, in the Cooper world at that time, from Peter Eisenman: an affirmation autonomy of architecture as a discipline. Today elaborated by Pier Vittorio Aureli. Position upheld by Daniel Libeskind… For Diane, the affirmation of “autonomy” was refracted into a conviction that the thought-world, the idea-world, of architecture was complete and vast enough to encompass all design motivations. Architects don’t need social scientists, technical experts, or other non-architect specialists to formulate what must be done. The humanism of architecture practice ensures its functionality and ethics; the depth of historical correspondences ensures the work’s significance and intelligibility.

From Diane’s Architectural Augury: “…the architect must confront the autonomy between form and program.” What does this mean exactly? A significant choice of words. An intentional grammatical error. There can’t be autonomy “between” different things. “Between” signifies a relationship; autonomy signifies a lack of relationship. With this willful contradiction she affirms, at the same time, “autonomy of form and of program” and “relationship between form and program.” In the same essay, Diane also writes: “Great civic structure requires an autonomous architectural formulation… that must also carry a profound vision for the current program, as well as a potential to house future, unknown programs.” Architecture as a vessel, a receptacle for the civic programs that fill it. This is the Taoist idea of fruitful emptiness or, rather, the Greek idea of hyle and morphe. In Greek thinking, morphe, or form, is differentiated and hyle, or material, is undifferentiated. The architectural formulation (morphe), in its extreme precision and differentiation, gives shape and identity to the as-yet-indefinite civic program that fills it.

The legacy of modernism

Modernism as a living, ongoing project. Clarity of principles, transparency of operations. When Le Corbusier writes that “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light,” this light is not just sunlight; it is the light of reason. For Diane, the Free Plan and the Free Section were tools for the transcription of free, that is democratic, institutions. Knowledge about how to perform these operations is transmissible.

In apparent contradiction, the modernist project has an underexplored “other” side—surrealist, irrational, subconscious, mythical, esoteric. This is where modernism’s potential remains untapped. She often quoted Freud’s “Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.” The “other” side of modernism is explored in Barry Bergdoll’s curatorial work on Mies and Robin Evan’s writings on Mies. One approaches this latent dimension through a literary-critical method. She interpreted the city and its works of architecture as a text, a communicative act, just as psychoanalysis approaches the mind’s unconscious utterances.

Architectural urbanism

Diane’s concept of “architectural urbanism”: urban space and specific urban qualities arising from spatial relationships between discrete, singular works of architecture. Manuel de Solà-Morales’ equivalent term: “urban acupuncture.” Kenneth Frampton’s term: “punctual urbanism.” To my knowledge, Diane never referred to Manuel de Sola Morales’ theories, but the similarity of their thinking is strong.

A city is made up of singular works of architecture: the Rossian perspective. For Diane, this means an emphasis on civic institutions as constituent elements of the city. Her notion of “civic space” seems strongly related to Kahn’s idea of institutions.

If the city is made up of specific acts of architecture, held-together, the most important question to ask, in my opinion, is: what holds these elements together? For Solà-Morales, for Frampton, for Diane? In cases where architectural elements are in proximity and form spaces between each another, at at the Acropolis or the Campidoglio, the nature of this holding-together is clear. But when elements are dispersed through the city, how do they hold together? Diane affirmed that the architectural elements that compose a city are held together by a “structure” or “skeleton.” For her, the existence of this structure was a matter of fact.

We must go back to Mies for the origin of this notion of urban structure.

It isn’t as if Mies knew what that structure was: only that he knew, and painfully felt, its absence in “the godforsaken confusion of our time.” And he knew that the type of order that characterized the medieval city could not be reclaimed.

Mies was certain, with a spiritual faith, that there was an “organic principle of order,” in which “lay hidden the creative principle by means of which man can bring himself and things into concordance, producing beauty by means of the ‘proportions between things.'”

Is such an urban structure really present and active, holding distant architectural elements together in an architectural, non-generic way? We are not talking about urban morphology: nothing could be more remote from Mies’ or Diane’s view. Or is this structure just an article of faith? When I walk around IIT campus, I sense that there is no structure there. Mies’ grid master plan is a failure.

Diane inherited Mies’ conviction about the reality of urban structure. For her, it was a question of composing the plan.


For Diane, Hejduk, and everyone at Cooper at that time, orthographic projection was the framework for architectural thought and production. Plan/section/elevation was central. The act of drawing a building in plan, section, and elevation is an abstract enactment of its construction. The abstraction of the orthogonal frame of reference displaces our everyday point of view. This estranges the work in a good way: it counteracts habit, subjectivity, and sentimentality.

A consequence of the centrality of orthographic projection for architectural thought: only that which can be described orthographically can enter into the realm of architecture. This includes geometric constructions as well as irregular forms that can be caught in the net of geometry. (Think of Piero della Francesca’s studies of heads and horses in perspective.) Landscape, conceived as the surface of the earth, can be surveyed and retrieved into the orthographic reality of architecture. Nonetheless, the world represented in plan and section is timeless and dead. No moment in calendar-time or clock-time is represented. Orthographic reality is a synchronic reality, a meta-reality, a fictive reality. Nature and its cycles cannot enter. Clearly this understanding is inadequate today. The last thing we need to affirm is our independence from the natural world.

But something important has been lost, now that orthographic projection has become just one method among many. Without the orthographic mindset, rendering and modeling take the fore, and there are negative consequences. Architecture is not a matter of creating effects, scenes, views. And the act of building is, for the most part, not analogous to the operations of 3D modeling: pushing things around, shelling surfaces, stretching, merging, and so on.

Notion of an “architectonic” level: was this Raimond Abraham’s contribution? Architectonic = architectural propositions that are not specific in terms of materials and methods, but specific in terms of scale, relationship to gravity, sunlight, geometry, and assembly (???). Architectonics is an understanding of tectonics independent of materiality and technics. Architectonic elements have a context, even if they have no specific relationship to a singular place on earth. Within architecture, forms and orders are always polarized (biased, inclined, weighted) towards the existential reality of humans on earth: our scale, the way our bodies are organized, the Earth’s gravity, the Sun’s light, the solidity of the ground, the horizon…

The role of architectonic explorations for first-year architecture education at Cooper: to show the power of geometry, to show how program is implicit within formal organization, to understand construction as a formal proposition.

For Abraham, the existential and tragic dimension of human life was present at this architectonic level. Architectonics is, at root, a belief in the primal power of geometricized space. Geometry has the power to invoke forces and ward them off. All regular geometric forms reflect the afterglow of the Platonic ideal. In this Götterdämmerung situation, every act of architecture is a crime and atonement for that crime. Geometry is the house and prison of mankind. Think of Abraham’s project, House for Euclid: a cubic frame that becomes four gallows. Abraham was not an optimist.

What was geometry for Diane? Not a rite or ritual: not demiurgic. Abraham’s tragic perspective was missing here. Mies’ spiritual faith was also missing. For Diane, geometry was operational. The excellence, the arete, of the architect lies in knowing how to operate upon and within the urban structure, and how to compose spaces and elements in plan and section. “Watch and learn…”: this was her teaching approach. Democracy, the free life of the city, depended upon the architect’s performance. Diane was an idealist in the guise of a pragmatist.


What I’m saying about Diane Lewis is just words if it doesn’t make an indent.

– (c) Peter Lynch 2024

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