Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Remembering Jean-Louis Cohen

Disney Concert Hall tour in February 2003, I am third from the right, JLC far right. (Photo Courtesy Karen Leader)

Curator, architect and historian Jean-Louis Cohen died suddenly in August. Along with his many international accolades and accomplishments, he was also my dissertation advisor at the Institute of Fine Arts and, latterly, a friend. I contributed this short memory to a collection of memorials published in The Architect’s Newspaper.

The death of Jean-Louis Cohen has been a shock and a deep sadness. I had not seen him in person since the beginning of the pandemic, but it was one of the delights of adulthood that someone so smart, so connected, and, as a 25-year-old master’s student, so intimidating, could eventually morph from a teacher into a mentor into a friend.

I and several of my classmates in my IFA cohort are small women; when we first started at the Institute, I imagined us as ducklings following behind Jean-Louis. The dramatic West Coast version of this dynamic was captured in a Los Angeles Times article about a field trip he took us on to Los Angeles, perhaps his third beloved city after Paris and Casablanca. On that trip, our buttoned up, urbane advisor revealed himself to have a California persona—open collar, sportscar—and the rest of us, packed into minivans, could only rush across multiple lanes of traffic to catch up as we zig-zagged up and down the coast from Eames to Wright to Schindler to Gehry. I had never been to L.A. before and I still remember standing in the mirrored bathroom of John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house (the original Cocaine Décor) and thinking, Where am I? Where has this been my whole life? I hadn’t even known this kind of architecture existed, and it took a middle-aged Frenchman to show it to me. Jean-Louis didn’t want us to follow—he wanted us to catch up and, thanks to his tutelage, we eventually did.

When I began the MA program at the IFA, I had already been working as a journalist for four years. My plan was to get a PhD and then use that knowledge to support my work as an architecture critic. I didn’t realize then how unusual it was within academia, and especially during that era of the Institute, to encourage public scholarship. But Jean-Louis enthusiastically supported the notion of writing for mainstream media, and demonstrated, through his own writing, curation, friendships, and choice of topics, that engaging with the broadest possible public could be the core of the intellectual project.

His own work often took a topic that had been covered a million times—postwar architecture, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry—and demonstrated that there were plenty of new things to say if you (he) looked at it from a different angle. Even though he spoke more languages, knew more cities, and had already published more work than most of his advisees ever would, he took our interests and ideas seriously, asking questions, asking us to be more provocative, and never herding us back toward some imagined safe architecture history. A radical proposal didn’t necessarily mean going to the ends of the earth but deep into the archives, interrogating the dominant perspective, politics, or value systems. My dissertation, which he enthusiastically supported, was on the surface about postwar corporate architecture, the most heroic and bureaucratic of topics, but ended up launching my ongoing research interest in collaboration and personal networks. Classmates wrote about sculpture, vernacular architecture, technology; there was never one dominant period, geography, style, or discipline for the dissertations his students wrote. He didn’t care about that kind of limit, or reputation management, or reflection, and he empowered all of us to ignore those terms as well.