Harold Cohen, who led the School from educational experiment to fully-fledged design and planning enterprise, dies at 96

Harold Cohen (with wife Mary Cohen, right) continued to participate in the life of the School and university after his retirement, including the the School's Hayes Hall reopening celebration in 2016. Photo by Douglas Levere.

Harold Cohen (with wife Mary Cohen, right) continued to participate in the life of the School and university after his retirement, including the the School's Hayes Hall reopening celebration in 2016. Photo by Douglas Levere

by Bradshaw Hovey

Published November 19, 2021

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Harold L. Cohen, Dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design from 1974 to 1984, died peacefully at home in Buffalo on November 2, 2021. He was 96 years old.

Cohen was an educator, artist, designer, researcher, social reformer, and health activist who led the School through its transition from educational experiment to fully-fledged design and planning enterprise. He was full of energy and ideas, not afraid to speak his mind, and driven to make a difference in the world, especially Buffalo, the city he made his home.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Eastern European immigrant parents, Cohen was raised in a socially conscious Orthodox Jewish household. He was drawn to art at an early age despite discouragement from his father who thought it was no way to make a living. He was valedictorian at his Yeshiva and attended Pratt Institute before heading to Chicago where he studied at Northwestern University and the Institute for Design.

Foundations in the Bauhaus movement

The Institute for Design (ID) was known in that post-war moment as “the New American Bauhaus,” a revival of the Weimar-era design school in Germany that was dedicated to a marriage of art and technology in service to social needs. It was led by luminaries Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Serge Chermayeff and later Walter Gropius. After graduation, Cohen also taught at the school. But when the ID was incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology, the new head of the ID, Mies van der Rohe, marginalized Cohen’s basic design program. Cohen resigned.

He was subsequently recruited to create the Department of Design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale – later billed as “the Second American Bauhaus.” He built a faculty and a curriculum rooted in the same Bauhaus idea of design as a way of thinking and problem-solving that was applicable to most any creative human endeavor.

There, as throughout his career, Cohen’s philosophy was to find talented people and give them freedom to do whatever they did best. This included futurist R. Buckminster Fuller; pop art pioneer and futurist, John McHale; and internationally recognized painter and futurist, Magda Cordell McHale. Cohen pioneered the Experimental Freshman Year (EFY) at Carbondale, a program based on his conviction that the least academically talented students could thrive under the right circumstances.

After stepping down at Southern Illinois, he assumed a leadership role at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Maryland where his later investigations focused on the benefit better learning environments could provide for prisoners and troubled youth. Later, he founded the Experimental College there, based on principles similar to those of the EFY. His belief in the improvability of individuals and society never wavered.

A ferocious advocate for the School

Zoom image: Harold Cohen during his tenure as dean of the then-named School of Architecture and Environmental Design. Harold Cohen during his tenure as dean of the then-named School of Architecture and Environmental Design.

Harold Cohen during his tenure as dean of the then-named School of Architecture and Environmental Design.

In 1974 Buffalo called. The School of Architecture and Environmental Design faced a difficult transition. Its founding Dean, John P. Eberhard, had departed the previous year and several of his initial hires were already headed out the door. Cohen heard about the job opening through the McHales and put in his application. Cohen and UB President Robert Ketter hit it off and struck a deal. Cohen’s marching orders were simple: get the architecture program accredited. He went to work, restructuring faculty and curriculum.

Early in his tenure, Ketter told Cohen it was time to start thinking about the design of a new building on North Campus that would be the permanent home for the School. “I said, ‘no, I will not,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “‘I’m not in agriculture. I need to be in the city.’” Across more than three decades of debate and delay over where the School ought to be located, Cohen’s initial position ultimately prevailed.

Cohen was a ferocious advocate for the School – within the university and across the community. In 1976, a university-wide program review committee recommended that the School be phased out for lack of accreditation and failure to train “traditional architects who design houses and buildings.” In a scathing, blunt, and public rebuttal to the committee, Cohen basically told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. The purpose of the school was not merely to train architects for the profession as it existed but to educate the professionals who would create the architecture of the future. When a long list of cuts was announced later that year, the School was the only unit slated to add faculty.

His strategy for building the school hinged, in part, on luring well-known scholars to Buffalo. His courtship of “Bucky” Fuller floundered on his old friend’s demand for money and Fuller’s advanced age. He was already 80. Cohen also enticed John McHale to come to Buffalo and had a deal in place when McHale died suddenly at the age of 56. Cohen invited Magda McHale to join the school two years later.

Cohen’s biggest catch was star historian and critic Peter Reyner Banham who graced the school for four years at the end of the 1970s and brought Buffalo’s ensemble of concrete grain elevators and daylight factory buildings to international attention through his book A Concrete Atlantis. Perhaps even more important in the long term was Cohen’s recruitment of George Anselevicius from Harvard to be chair in architecture. It was Anselevicius who led the program to its initial accreditation in 1979, thus fulfilling Cohen’s initial promise to Ketter.

Mobilizing design as a problem-solving enterprise

Zoom image: Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen's (second from right) going-away party, circa 1990. Also pictured (from left to right): Will Clarkson, John Bis, Anton Harfmann, Alfred Price, Beth Tauke, Cohen, and William Greiner. Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen (second from right) celebrates with faculty and staff as he concluded his tenure as dean, circa 1984.

Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen's (second from right) going-away party, circa 1990. Also pictured (from left to right): Will Clarkson, John Bis, Anton Harfmann, Alfred Price, Beth Tauke, Cohen, and William Greiner.

In 1977, Cohen convinced State Senator James D. Griffin, then a candidate for Mayor of Buffalo, to sponsor a planning process for the 600-block of Main Street downtown. The effort was dubbed the “Entertainment District Project,” and within Griffin’s first year as Mayor became the inspiration for the development of what is now known as Buffalo’s Theater District. It was also the prototype for dozens of community-based studio planning and design projects that made the city a classroom for the school throughout its history.

Cohen stepped down as Dean at the end of the 1983-84 academic year. But before he did he hired in one fell swoop new chairs for each of the School’s three departments: Donald Glickman, who had been his student at Southern Illinois, to be chair of Design Studies; David C. Perry, a rising political economist, as chair in Urban Planning; and Robert G. Shibley to be chair in architecture. Those appointments would shape the school for decades to come.

He created the Design Studies program in 1982. True to his Bauhaus philosophy, Cohen believed that design as a kind of meta-discipline of socially-conscious problem-solving and world-making was the necessary foundation of any academic unit that also aspired to teach architecture, planning, and any other species of design practice. After he stepped down as Dean, the program had supporters but no champion. Faculty were reassigned first to the Environmental Design program and later to Architecture.

In 1985, Cohen established the UB Health in Housing Institute (HIH), a collaboration of the School of Architecture and Planning and UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, which he and his wife, Mary D. Cohen co-directed until their retirement in 1991. Perhaps their most notable achievement was a project in the late 1980s to control infestations of the Chagas bug, which spread a debilitating disease across much of Central and South America. The two-year “WHO Project for the Control of Chagas Disease,” which included an insect trap designed by Harold and a publication written by Mary, was pilot-tested in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Cohen continued to produce his paintings and prints into his early nineties and exhibit them around the country and abroad. A chair he designed with his colleague, Davis Pratt, is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A major collection of his prints, paintings and sculptures resides at Buffalo's Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Harold and Mary Cohen, who passed away in 2020, were true partners and peers across a marriage of 69 years. They are survived by children Jano Cohen, Lore Devra Levin, and David Cohen, daughter-in-law Margaret Cohen, and grandchildren Jessica Cohen-Nowak and Adam Cohen-Nowak. A memorial for both Harold and Mary will be held in spring 2022.

Tributes from our faculty and alumni

Robert G. Shibley.

Dean Robert G. Shibley says Cohen's engagement with the social, cultural and physical landscape of the surrounding region is among his greatest legacies. Dean Shibley was hired by Cohen in 1982 to chair the Department of Architecture.

"Harold Cohen helped build a culture of place-based work in the school that continues to be a central part of our approach to teaching, research, and service.  Each dean since has benefitted from and built on this culture.  The work is intensely local and increasingly celebrated globally, achieving impacts at multiple scales and on a wide range of subject areas."

Beth Tauke.

Beth Tauke, associate professor of architecture, who has served on the faculty since 1985, recalls Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen as a "big force with big visions."

"Harold was a big force with big visions. When he took something on, he was all in. He was involved in the world at all scales, and, regardless of the issue--designing single-person temporary shelters or preventing bug infestations in South American housing--Harold gave intense focus to the task. Students and faculty members alike remember his laser beam look and direct questions. He has had and will continue to have great staying power within all of us."

Al Price.

Professor Emeritus Alfred Price was hired in 1977 by Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen as a faculty member and associate dean to help the School establish professional degrees, grow its faculty and bring in external funding.

"Harold’s contributions to the School are almost incalculable: he had the foresight to recruit to Buffalo a couple of stars as department chairs— George Anselevicius from Harvard, and Peter Reyner Banham come to mind. And they were followed by other younger stars who advanced that excellent start: Bob Shibley in Architecture, David Perry in Planning, and Don Glickman in Design. It was a great thrill for me to have Harold select me as his only Associate Dean to help him build our School into the respected institution it has now become."

Donald Glickman, former faculty member in the Department of Architecture, was hired by Cohen in 1982 to lead the newly-formed Design Studies department.

Donald Glickman, former faculty member in the Department of Architecture, was hired by Cohen in 1982 to lead the newly-formed Design Studies department.

"From Harold, I learned that design is a process, a purposeful act, and not an object or artifact. He taught us all that others were the recipients of our work, and therefore, what we design must be responsive to human needs and be culturally appropriate."

Andrew Proehl, who studied in the Design Studies program in the late 1980s, says Cohen opened him to career pathways that didn't exist at the time.

Alumnus Andrew Proehl (BA Design Studies, '84), says Cohen opened him to career pathways that didn't exist at the time. Today Proehl is senior director of user experience for Meltwater, a media insights platform.

"I learned so much under Dean Cohen. He opened my mind to a broad range of topics: the design principles of the Bauhaus, global health issues and the concept that, "architecture is the space between the walls". His design lectures were mind-opening. Dean Cohen's cross-disciplinary approach to design education was ahead of its time and enabled me to work in design fields that did not even exist when I was a student at UB."