For the Swiss-born historian Kurt W. Forster, architecture was never singular. It was an ever-expanding constellation of people, places, projects, and ideas that bled at its edges into numerous other disciplines, and the task that befell the observer—Forster—was to draw intricate, often surprising webs of connection across it in an effort to capture and understand it in all its complexity.
Forster, who died of cancer in January at 89, made those connections in his voluminous writings, in his decades of teaching, in his curatorial work, and even in the institutional structures that he shaped—perhaps most notably the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, now the Getty Research Institute, where he served as inaugural director from 1984 to 1992.
Rather than a narrowly defined specialist, “he was an intellectual who took architecture as his major object of concern,” says Tairan An, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton who served as Forster’s teaching assistant and developed a close relationship with him in the final years of his life.
Forster was born in 1935 in Zürich, where he studied music and considered becoming a composer. Though he eventually changed course and began studying art history, music remained important to him throughout his life, both as an object of intellectual study and a source of pleasure: attending concerts was among his favorite activities.
At just 24, after studying in Berlin and Munich, Forster was hired to teach at Yale. There he encountered Josef Albers and other leading figures in art and architecture of the early 1960s, and began to refine the magisterial, theatrical style of teaching for which he would later become known by generations of students. In his lectures, he would move deftly across time and across disciplines, finding illuminating linkages between the most apparently disparate of topics.
“He was an incredibly generous teacher,” says Surry Schlabs, the director of undergraduate studies at the Yale School of Architecture and a former Ph.D. student of Forster’s. “And he could talk about almost anything with expertise and authority.”
Photo courtesy Yale School of Architecture
Though Forster often surprised his students, going on tangents in unexpected directions and crafting course syllabi week by week, depending on the direction of the lectures and discussions, he was an expert in the art of sprezzatura—the studied nonchalance prized by Renaissance courtiers—in the best of ways. Enabling his confidence and spontaneity were hours of meticulous planning; according to former colleagues and Elisabetta Terragni Forster, his widow, he cared intensely for his students and prepared each of his lectures in detail, down to every joke, to the point that he knew his material so well as not to need to read from his notes.
Forster never stayed for too long at a single institution. After leaving Yale, he went west, to Stanford, where he remained for nearly 15 years before taking the reins at the Getty Center. Afterward, he returned to Switzerland for several years to head the history and theory of architecture program at ETH Zürich, before taking over as director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. He served as curator of the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale, and then, in 2005, made yet another return, to Yale, to develop the school’s Ph.D. program in architecture—the program in which I am now studying. His final position was at Princeton, where he taught from 2019 to 2021.
Forster was “one of the greats,” says Beatriz Colomina, a professor of architectural history and theory at Princeton. “We don’t have these kinds of figures anymore,” she says, noting that Forster’s broad-ranging erudition has given way to more focused approaches among subsequent generations of historians.
That erudition is on full display in Forster’s writings, in which he took on a variety of subjects from Jacopo Pontormo to Giulio Romano to such contemporary figures as Craig Hodgetts, Ming Fung, and Frank Gehry. Among his longtime passions was the architecture of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and his masterful final book, Schinkel: A Meander Through His Life and Work (2018), synthesizes biography, cultural and intellectual context, and architectural analysis, among other things. “[I]t is necessary to chart Schinkel’s place by moving beyond the context to which he is customarily confined—Prussia, Protestantism, neoclassical theory, and romanticism—and to avoid constricting the scope of his imagination to brick and mortar, pen and ink,” wrote Forster.
Fittingly, in October 2021, Forster took his final trip abroad, to Germany, to receive the prestigious Schinkel Prize. An, his student at Princeton, accompanied him on the trip, and recalls the joy he found in wandering around Berlin. “He always walked fast, like a child,” says An, “which somehow reflected how fit, how strong, how curious he was.”
Forster is survived by Terragni Forster and two daughters from a previous marriage.