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Ulrich Franzen, 1921–2012

October 18, 2012

Ulrich Franzen, prominent architect of the Modern Movement in the U.S., died October 6 at the age of 91. Born in Germany in 1921, Franzen came to the U.S. with his family in 1936, graduated from Williams, and studied architecture under Gropius and Breuer at Harvard. After a stint with I.M. Pei, he established his own practice in New York from 1955 and maintained it through the early 1990s. Several houses, dating from the 1950s to the 1990s, are dispersed across New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. His own house in Rye, NY, 1956, has been well preserved by its current owners and was the site of a 2010 DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State reception. A variation on its buoyant roof canopy can be seen in the Towers House in Essex, CT, 1963, portrayed in a recent video.

Franzen’s larger projects include the Alley Theater in Houston (1968), two major research buildings at Cornell (1974 and 1981), the Champion International office building in Stamford, CT (1983), the Philip Morris building in Manhattan (1984), and two prominent buildings for Hunter College in New York (1986)—linked by “skywalk” bridges across Lexington Avenue. Franzen’s design approach and materials varied widely with circumstances, from sleek, minimally detailed volumes to massive forms in exposed concrete or masonry cladding. (The headline of his New York Times obituary calls him “designer of Brutalist Buildings,” although the Alley Theater is his only clearly Brutalist work. And the Philip Morris building across from Grand Central Terminal is not a “concrete fortress” as preservation consultant William Higgins is quoted saying. It is a steel-frame building clad in granite consciously designed to be deferential to Grand Central through its low-keyed, abstracted Classicism.)

Contributing beyond his own practice, Franzen was a mainstay in the Architectural League of New York and served on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Franzen House, Rye, NY (1956) during 2010 DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State reception. Photo: Djuro Villaran Rokovich