Ulrich Franzen, Designer of Brutalist Buildings, Dies at 91

October 15, 2012 | Uncategorized

By PAUL VITELLO

October 14, 2012

Ulrich Franzen, a German-born architect whose fortresslike buildings seemed to buttress the interior landscape of New York City during the shaky 1970s, and who gave it some buoyance, too, with skywalks, died on Oct. 6 in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 91. His death was confirmed by his wife, Josephine.

Not everyone liked the skywalks, which connect buildings Mr. Franzen designed at Hunter College on Lexington Avenue. Neighbors lamented the loss of sunlight. But Mr. Franzen, a Modernist subscriber to the form-follows-function credo, considered them the functional equivalent of ivy-covered walkways for urban students. It would “become the college community’s main street,” he wrote of the skywalk plan in 1972 in the college’s student newspaper, “well above rush-hour traffic at street level.”

Mr. Franzen was part of a generation of prominent American architects, including Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph and I. M. Pei, to emerge from the Harvard School of Design after World War II. The group was deeply influenced by the Bauhaus architecture masters Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who taught at Harvard after fleeing the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s.

Mr. Franzen’s early works are exemplars of the Modernist style, among them his first designs for private residences, most of them clean-lined, single-level structures perched on waterfronts and rock ledges, wrapped in sliding glass and flooded with light.

He also helped design the first-generation shopping mall Roosevelt Field, on Long Island, working with Mr. Pei and Henry N. Cobb, another graduate of the Harvard program. The mall, which opened on a former air field in 1956, is a vast duplex in an ocean of parking space.

Mr. Franzen’s first major solo project was the fortresslike Alley Theater in Houston, which opened in 1968 for the city’s resident theater company. Critics praised it as a triumph of the Brutalist style, characterized by the use of rough exterior materials like concrete. But many Houston residents hated it. One letter in The Houston Chronicle condemned the building’s “totalitarian” aura.

Mr. Franzen applied Brutalism again in designing two 17-story concrete and glass towers for Hunter College, a branch of the City University of New York. Begun in 1972 and finished in 1984 — after a long hiatus caused by the city’s financial crisis — the buildings stand on opposite sides of Lexington Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets.

Many Upper East Side residents were surprised by the skywalks, connecting the buildings at the third and eighth floors. A third walkway links buildings over 68th Street.

“It’s the one at the third-story level that’s most oppressive, I think, because it’s low,” said Margot Wellington, the executive director of the Municipal Art Society, in an interview for the 2006 book “New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Bicentennial and the Millennium,” by the architect Robert A. M. Stern. “The two together,” she said, “take out more sky than you think.”

But as Mr. Franzen had hoped, the walkways became the central arteries of college life. Mr. Stern, who is also dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said in an interview on Wednesday that people had grown more comfortable with Mr. Franzen’s work at Hunter College.

“It wasn’t everybody’s idea of a charming college campus experience, but it was interesting,” he said. “And it widened the public perception about urban space.”

Mr. Franzen’s most high-profile project in New York was the world headquarters for the Philip Morris Companies, across from Grand Central Terminal at Park Avenue and 42nd Street. The tower, begun in the late 1970s and completed in 1982, carried symbolic importance.

“It was about the city’s viability as a corporate center,” said William J. Higgins, a landmarks preservation consultant.

The city had not fully emerged from its brush with bankruptcy when Philip Morris undertook the project. It was considered risky, and Mr. Franzen’s design reflected the mood of both his client and the city. “He built a concrete fortress,” Mr. Higgins said, “that sort of summed up the emotional landscape of New York in the ’70s.”

The building, rising 26 stories, featured a novel form of public space: an enclosed sculpture gallery on the ground floor, with works from the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Philip Morris, now the Altria Group, sold the building in 2008, and the gallery closed as well.)

Mr. Franzen, who served on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in the 1990s, was known for his self-assurance and forceful opinions. Yet he was modest about the architect’s role in making cityscapes.

“Architecture is the servant of its time,” he said in an interview with the critic Peter Blake for a 1999 book about Mr. Franzen’s work, “and significant designs are experiments of an era. The buildings that are designed become footprints of our own sociocultural history, reflections of the ideas and concerns of an era, and not those of an individual.”

Ulrich Joseph Franzen was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on Jan. 15, 1921. His father, Eric, was a writer and a translator of Shakespeare, his mother, the former Lisbeth Hellersberg, a psychologist. The family left Germany in 1936 and settled in New York.

After his parents divorced, Mr. Franzen lived with his mother and a younger brother, Wolfgang, in New Jersey until he entered Williams College in Massachusetts. After receiving his bachelor’s degree there, he spent a semester at Harvard’s architecture school before joining the Army and serving in the Office of Strategic Services. He returned to Harvard after the war and received his master’s degree in 1950.

Among his other notable designs are the Harpers Ferry Center (1969) in West Virginia, designed for the National Park Service; the Harlem School of the Arts (1978) in New York; University Center, at the University of Michigan (1981) in Flint, Mich.; and the Champion International headquarters (1985) in Stamford, Conn.

He and his wife lived for many years in Rye, N.Y., in a house he designed, before retiring to Santa Fe. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Peter and David; a daughter, April; and three grandchildren.

Originally published by The New York Times