David Van Zanten
David Van Zanten works on modern Western architecture, focusing especially on design methods and the architect’s social sense of him- or herself. He was trained at Princeton, initially as an architect early in the teaching career there of Michael Graves, then at Harvard in art history, with a year at the Courtauld Institute studying the extraordinary Romanesque Cathedral at Saint Albans under George Zarnecki. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he served summers as an archeological architect at Cosa, near Rome, and Sardis, near Izmir, Turkey. He has taught at McGill University, the University of Pennsylvania and, since 1980, at Northwestern University, retiring in 2018. He served as secretary of SAH from 1978 to 1982 and on the Board of Directors from 1974 to 1977.
His dissertation (Harvard, 1970) explored the fascinating efforts to understand the implications of traces of painted color on Greek temples reflected in the work of Gottfried Semper and Owen Jones, J.-I. Hittorff, Henri Labrouste and Félix Duban (Garland: [with an up-dated introduction], 1977). His Paris work he expended in his Designing Paris (MIT Press, 1987), which was awarded the 1988 Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award from SAH, and Building Paris (Cambridge, 1994). Parallel Chicago is summarized in his Sullivan’s City (W. W. Norton, 2000). He has contributed to the exhibitions The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (MoMA, 1975), The Second Empire (Paris, Philadelphia, Detroit, 1978–1979), Chicago Architecture, 1872–1922 (Chicago, Paris, 1987–1988), Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament (St Louis Art Museum, 1986), as well as several exhibitions at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. He has twice edited volumes presenting the work of the Chicago/Australian/Indian designers Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin (1970, 2011). He has been awarded a Fulbright, a Graham Foundation Fellowship, two NEH Fellowships, a DAAD, and a Guggenheim. He is a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1995) and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Looking back over these research experiences, he sees two great questions yet to explore: 1) Focusing on just how architects “produce” building designs, where this activity might fit in our Western social matrix, and 2) Considering architecture, therefore, a medium and a stance in our culture—what happens when certain architects explore its conceptual edges? – Jones, Labrouste and Hittorff; Sullivan and Wright; Kahn, Venturi and Graves.