I'm not sure I ever encountered an instructor - at any level of my education - quite like John Zemanek. I interacted with him frequently while a student at the University of Houston College of Architecture, be it through the courses I took from him, the numerous critiques and juries of mine that he attended, the Friday afternoons I spent chatting with him in his office, or the visits to his fascinating Montrose home my friends and I made. And even after all that, I don't think I ever quite understood him. To say that he was merely "eccentric" or "enigmatic" would be an understatement.
John Zemanek was a brilliant man; he was a scholar of philosophy, art, anthropology and history as much as he was an instructor of architecture. That was, in my opinion, both a gift and curse to his teaching abilities.
The actual lecture courses I took from him were a disappointment. They were always variations on the same theme: the Western World is in decline; consumer culture, the privatization (and militarization) of public space, and the rise of the "entertainment-industrial complex"
are making us a bunch of joyless pawns of the rich; knowledge is being superseded by mere information; culture is being superseded by mere civilization. Maybe he had a point - see, for example, Donald Trump - but his lectures oftentimes felt like apocalyptic indoctrination sessions with only tenuous links to the actual practice of architecture. I didn't do well in his classes.
He was much more engaging when he was outside the classroom setting and not following a scripted lesson plan. I think I learned more about architecture and urbanism from him just by chatting with him in his office or walking to and from the Satellite for lunch with him than I did by sitting in his lectures. He was especially interested in youth culture (and counterculture) and on a couple of occasions even accompanied my friends and me to a couple of rave parties to observe Houston's nascent techno scene. Zemanek is
also probably one of the major reasons why I decided to go to graduate school
for a degree in city planning.
I think a friend of mine said it best: "on the one hand a condescending prick of an architect, on the other a teacher pushing his students to be better."
Although I knew that he served in the Second World War, I had no idea that Zemanek was a bombardier on a B-24 and that his plane was shot down on the last day of the European war. He never talked (to me, at least) about his experiences in WW II, although they clearly had a great influence on his life and teachings.
As is my custom, I'm reposting his Chronicle obituary
here. The UH College of Architecture has a more detailed remembrance
Johnny "John" Eugene Zemanek, FAIA, architect, planner and professor, 94, died Monday, April 18. The youngest of twelve children of Bohemian political refugees Jan (John) and Frantiska (Frances) Machacek Zemánek of Moravia, John was born in Guy, Texas near the Brazos River. He attended Big Creek, Guy, and Damon rural schools, before attending Texas A & M University and graduating with a degree in architecture, a member of the Corps of Cadets. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserves and entered active duty in January 1943. A second lieutenant, he served as a bombardier on B-24 Liberators, flying allied missions from Foggia, in southern Italy. On the last day of the European war, his plane was shot down and made an emergency landing at an unmarked airfield behind enemy lines. All crewmembers were recovered.
After the war, he went on to The University of Texas in Austin for Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a Master of City Planning degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, led by Walter Gropius. John returned to Houston to practice with Kenneth Franzheim, then relocated to Tokyo to work for Czech American modernist architect Antonin Raymond; there he planned 17 airbases in the Far East. He practiced also for the U. S. Department of State in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) planning village housing and institutes.
Returning to Houston, he worked with many of Houston's eminent firms, including Wilson, Morris, and Crain, where he contributed to the development of the Harris County Domed Stadium, now known as the Astrodome.
Invited to teach at the University of Houston College of Architecture first as a visitor, then full time in 1964, he earned tenure in 1969. He maintained a solo practice, and his independent architecture reflected the profound influence of his Texas rural heritage and landscape as well as his respect for and deep knowledge of the diverse Asian cultures that engaged him so fully throughout his life. His work has been published in local, national and international journals and television media, and has won design awards at the local, state, and national level. In 1978 he earned the national AIA Honor Award, for his Three H Services Center, a social services complex for the Bordersville community, which had been established by former slaves. He is remembered especially for a series of three Montrose houses, each designed as his personal residence, dating from 1969, 2000 and 2011. He would later refer to these as Gaia 1, 2, and 3. While each is an unassuming essay on modest materials carefully combined for great spatial effect, a comparison reveals the evolution of his thinking from ephemeral delicacy toward distinct rootedness.
Over his 48 years of teaching at the University of Houston he never failed to challenge students to think critically and to engage them in an "architecture that begins with our social structure."
His latest creative efforts include his memoir Being••Becoming (2016) published just before his death, and a design consultation for Morningstar Coffee, opening in Houston next month.
John was preceded in death by his parents, 5 brothers and 6 sisters. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Sue Zemanek, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and extended family and by a multitude of friends.
Details of a memorial will be forthcoming. Donations may be made in his honor to the UH Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.