Remembrance by Les Levine

The Franzen family and the Architectural League held a memorial service for Ulrich Franzen (1921-2012) on March 5, 2013, in New York City. Friends and colleagues spoke in a celebration of his life and work, including reflections by Henry Cobb, James Stewart Polshek, Robert A.M. Stern, Les Levine, John Lobell, Dimon Liu, Laurie Beckelman, and Toshiko Mori. The following text is taken from Levine’s remarks at the service.

Franzen in Rye, N.Y. in 1962 | photo: Ezra Stoller, ESTO

Franzen in Rye, N.Y. in 1962 | photo: Ezra Stoller, ESTO

I first met Rick in the ’60s. At the time, he was President of the Architectural League and was interested in seeing that the League was a place where the most up-to-date issues in architecture and art were discussed. While Rick did love art, he was not. strictly speaking, an “art lover.” He did not see art as a tourist attraction or a vacation from reality. For Rick, art was heightened reality and art was capable of defining and changing reality.

And so in 1968 we had the “Big Eye” series of artist videotapes at the Architectural League. This was long before the Museum of Modern Art or any other major institution had a media or video department, which of course they all have today.

In 1969, the Architectural League put on John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem. Dial-A-Poem allowed you to hear many of the most contemporary poets’ work of the day. All you had to do was to dial a telephone number. Rick was pleased.

<em>Announcement for Dial-a-Poem, 1969</em>

Announcement for Dial-a-Poem, 1969

The League also produced James Lee Byars’ 200 People in a Hat (a.k.a. Mile-Long Garment). This piece completely wrapped around the block with hundreds of people in this bright red silk fabric. It was truly a celebration of interactive art. Rick was delighted

We also had the exhibition entitled Your Worst Work. For this exhibition, members were asked to submit what they considered to be their worst work and to give a reason why they thought it was their worst. Surprisingly, many members got into the spirit of the show and it received a lot of press attention including a page in Life magazine. My entry was a poster. My reason was: I never got paid for it. And there were many other projects.

In all these projects, Rick never once suggested anything should be changed or modified, and he was the artists’ constant ally. At that time, the Architectural League members were mostly supremely moral and ethical, and quite capable of recognizing immoral and unethical behavior on the part of artists. There would be complaints from various members that these activities were destroying art, giving the League a bad name, and generally in bad taste.

<em>Performance of James Lee Byars' Mile-Long Garment, 1968</em>

Performance of James Lee Byars’ Mile-Long Garment, 1968

But Rick knew that good taste was no excuse. And on these occasions we would go to Rick and ask him to calm the waters as he was always on the side of the artists. Rick would call the complainers and straighten things out. He would do this by explaining and charming them. Rick’s charm was something to behold. It was like a beautiful sunset, a calm ocean, and a dry martini beaming happily and warmly at you. And nobody was immune to that charm. Those who were instantly turned to stone. By the time Rick had finished speaking to the complainers they were not only brought over to his point of view, they actually became advocates for it. Rick had that most humane of all skills. He could make people feel good and he could get them involved.

Rick was always at the forefront of what was happening in art and architecture. He never stayed mentally in one place and was always ready to listen to everybody’s point of view, and if he didn’t agree with you, you would find yourself in the middle of a very rational and enlightening discussion. He always had something interesting to say and was very aware of exactly what was happening at the moment. 

Much has been said that Rick’s approach was “form follows function.” Added to that should be Rick’s wonderful sense of humor. I remember seeing two bar stools in Rick’s apartment that incorporated chromed tractor seats. Worlds collide in a magic dance. Yes, maybe “form follows function,” but my takeaway was “fun follows function.” Fun always functioned very well for Rick. He was always ready for more fun.

Ulrich Franzen: student work, Exhibition Building, 1946 | courtesy of Harvard University

Ulrich Franzen: student work, Exhibition Building, 1946 | courtesy of Harvard University

I prefer to think a motto for Rick’s view was “truth equals beauty.” There was in everything he did an embedded, prescient truth. Real life was not too real for art. Rick never turned his back on society. He was passionately involved in our epic of civilization, in whatever was making our culture develop. And he never stopped searching for new ideas. 

In the mid-1970s I made a work entitled “Diamond Mind,” which was in part inspired by Rick. The narrative goes like this:

And he asked me why I was leaving. And I said, “I’m not leaving. I’m going on, continuing because I’m afraid if I stay I’ll stop going on.” And he said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”  And I said, “I don’t have any choice in the matter.” And he said, “Well, in that case I wish you the best of luck.”

And that is my lasting image of Rick. Someone who is always going on and continuing, never satisfied with the status quo, never afraid of what the future would hold, always ready to move on. He was an all around decent person. He was a wonderful friend. He will be sadly missed.

This text is part of the feature Ulrich Joseph Franzen (1921-2012). To read more about Franzen’s relationship with the League, click here.