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At Cooper Union, public art pays homage to Czech dissident Jan Palach

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Two 23-foot-tall structures, designed by the school’s founding dean of architecture, are now on display outside the university

The Jan Palach Memorial 
Photos by Lea Bertucci

Cooper Union, in partnership with the Department of Transportation’s Art Program, has just unveiled its first public exhibition for the recently-completed Cooper Square plaza. Known as the Jan Palach Memorial, the installation is of two spiky 23-foot-tall structures made of timber and metal. Each work—known separately as House of the Suicide and House of the Mother of the Suicide—honor the Czech dissident Jan Palach. His self-immolation, in protest of the Soviet invasion of 1968, served as a galvanizing force against Czechoslovakia’s communist government.

Both sculptures were designed by John Hejduk, an architect of Czech origin and the founding dean of The Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. Hejduk is part of the New York Five, modernist architects whose work was featured in a 1969 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. (The other four were Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and Richard Meier.) Hejduk went on to become the dean of architecture at Cooper Union in 1975; he passed away in 2000.

This isn’t the first time Hejduk’s memorial to Jan Palach has been on display. It was first constructed in 1990 by students at Georgia Tech and also built as a temporary installation on the grounds of Prague Castle in 1991. Most recently, the memorial was erected in January of last year in Prague, Czech Republic—marking the first time a John Hejduk structure was located permanently in a public space anywhere in the world.

Image of the memorial in Prague by Hélène Binet

“That’s the impetus for this whole [Cooper Union] exhibition,” explains Steven Hillyer, Cooper Union’s Architecture Archive Director. “When that moment in Prague took place ... we wanted to mark that and look at the trajectory of this pair of structures and how it evolved into something permanent.”

To do that, Cooper Union paired the physical memorial with a display, located inside the school, illustrating its history. That’s also joined by an exhibition of photographs by Hélène Binet that showcase seven of Hejduk’s architectural projects. Hillyer calls Binet the “photographer of record” for Hejduk’s works. “Helene captured the spirit of Hejduk, and they had a longstanding collaborative relationship across the disciplines of photography and architecture.”

To install the outdoor sculptures—which utilizes the same materials used by Georgia Tech in 1990—Cooper Union assembled a team of current students and alumni. Hejduk was a big believer in the “social contract” of architecture, so the school wanted to assemble his work in that spirit. “It’s about collaboration and a kind of engagement,” says Hillyer. “A community of individuals has to come together and actually do this.”

Over two weeks the Cooper Union team, using power tools and socket wrenches, assembled 400 pieces into both sculptures. They used a wooden yoke to carry each of the 98 spikes onto the roof of each structure, which is 12 feet off the ground. The spikes—which weight about 100 pounds a piece—then project another 12 feet into the air. The framing of both sculptures is made of cedar timber, while the spikes are made out of sheet metal welded together. “It’s a pretty significant physical condition,” Hillyer says. “The neighborhood has been asking tons and tons of questions.”

This exhibit will kick off ambitious programming Cooper Union has in mind for the new public plaza. “This is a new urban configuration that has yet to be tested out,” says Nader Tehrani, Cooper Union’s current Dean of Architecture. “It seems like a strategic opportunity to begin to feature the works of Cooper Union to the general public.”

By featuring the work of Hejduk, Tehrani says, the school is also highlighting an architect who hasn’t always gotten his due. “Hejduk, as the founder of the school of architecture, oversaw with care its pedagogy and its intellectual evolution for over 30 years,” Tehrani says. “He passed away without much public recognition of his presence, even though his departure was felt vividly by so many.” Hejduk’s works will be on display until June 11th of this year.