March 31, 2013

Cornell Architecture Professor Remembered as ‘Peaceful, Warm Person’

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Family and colleagues remembered Prof. Christian F. Otto, architecture, as a dedicated intellectual and scholar.

Otto — who died on March 27 of cancer at the age of 72 — taught classes up until two weeks before he died. Friends and colleagues said Otto was a peaceful, warm person with a very original mind.

“He didn’t focus on illness, and instead devoted his energies to his desire to live, teach, advise, research [and] write,” said his wife Roberta Moudry ’81 M.S. ’90 Ph.D. ’95, a Cornell architectural historian and  former associate editor for the Sun. “Chris was a good person — smart, kind, interesting. He was my best friend and colleague.”

Otto, who has been teaching at Cornell since 1970, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2012. Although he took the semester off due to a surgery, Otto continued to advise students, conduct research and write.

He began teaching Modern Architecture and a seminar in Fall 2012, and advised graduate students. Moudry said she and Otto had also begun conducting a research project on Roosevelt Island, the site of Cornell’s tech campus, just prior to Otto’s death.

Moudry said Otto loved architecture, adding that it was “the lens through which he saw the world.”

“[Architecture] framed his world. It delighted him, [and] it made him think and wonder,” she said. “But more than anything, he loved to teach, to bring students to a building, a landscape, an architectural idea or movement and guide them to see it, understand it and if not love it, respect it.

Lauren O’Connell M.A. ’84 Ph.D. ’89 — a former student, colleague and friend of Otto — said Otto, a lifelong Quaker, had a kind of calming effect on people, whether they were his children or his graduate students.

“Chris was a Quaker, and although he didn’t wear that prominently, I think that infused his interactions with people throughout his life. He had a kind of zen calm about him,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell also said Otto was an accomplished teacher-scholar who was a very dedicated father. In the classroom, Otto was respectful, insightful and able to make even the most mundane subjects interesting, she said.

“Everything seemed more interesting when Chris talked about it,” O’Connell said. “He would never cover your paper with red ink.”

According to O’Connell, Otto was unique in his ability to integrate the history, architecture and architectural design.

“I think that was one of the reasons that he was so beloved at Cornell. He also convinced us all about the importance of seeing architecture in person through the summer study trips that he and his wife, Roberta, developed and led,” she said.

According to Moudry, Otto’s research focused on 18th-century central Europe, European modernism and New York City, where he grew up. Otto was also the author of two books: one 1979 work about the 18th-century architect Balthasar Neumann and one book he wrote in 1991 about a landmark exhibition housing settlement built in Germany in 1927.

O’Connell remarked on the intellectual flexibility and range represented in Otto’s primary research specialities. She said he was able to relate the starkly different features of 18th century Bavarian church architecture to 20th century Modernism.

“It was Chris’s genius to see the similar strategies of space and light that informed them both,” she said.

Original Author: Kritika Oberoi