Julia Walker will be presenting a paper today as part of the panel The Problems and Potentials of Architectural Biography at the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, to be held virtually this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just AM!”: Brigitte D’Ortschy, Architecture, and Zen
In 2019, the biographer Robert Caro published his memoirs, reflecting on a career spent exploring the lives of fixers and kingmakers. For a successful biography, Caro avows, “you have to choose the right man.” With titles like The Power Broker (describing Robert Moses) and The Path to Power (referring to Lyndon B. Johnson), Caro’s oeuvre makes clear that the very terms of biography are individualist, public, political, powerful—and, perhaps above all, male.
Given the deep roots of these biases within the genre of biography, how might we understand the life of the German architect Brigitte D’Ortschy? Born and trained in Berlin, in 1950 D’Ortschy spent several months at a retraining program for German architects at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During this program, she was most affected by a lecture delivered to the group by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1953, Wright invited her to become an apprentice at Taliesin West. After a year at Taliesin, D’Ortschy moved permanently to Japan to study Zen Buddhism, eventually becoming the first Zen master from Germany. Though she is well known to scholars of Zen, she is virtually unknown in the history of architecture, despite her prolific career as an architect and planner.
D’Ortschy’s fascinating life thus engages a number of biography’s methodological ambivalences—first in the context of her status as a woman in architecture, with its masculinist history of heroic self-fashioning through biographical performance (of which Wright may be the exemplar); and second in the context of Zen, with its simultaneous belief in both the illusoriness and the essentiality of the self. Though D’Ortschy’s spiritual exploration led her away from contemplating her life’s details, allowing her to declare, “I just AM!,” the truth, biographically speaking, proves more complex.