Alex Krieger remembers François Vigier (1931–2020)

François Vigier sitting at his desk
François Vigier at the GSD in 1981. Courtesy: Clemens Kalischer

François Claude Denis Vigier, the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning Emeritus, died on February 7, 2020, shortly after his 89th birthday. Frank joined the Harvard Graduate School of Design faculty in 1962 and remained a distinguished member of the faculty until 2005. He was an early contributor to the emergence of urban design as a discipline—the program was founded just two years prior to his arrival—and was instrumental during the early 1990s in the return of urban planning to the GSD from its 14-year sojourn in the Kennedy School of Government. He served as the first chair of the then reorganized Department of Urban Planning and Design between 1992 and 1998. From 1987 until 2005 he also served as the director of the Center for Urban Development Studies at the GSD.

Retirement for Frank in 2005 marked the start of a new phase: the research undertaken at the Center of Urban Development continued and broadened under a new nonprofit, the Institute for International Urban Development, dedicated to the same humanitarian values. Frank was its its founder and its president for the past 15 years. The Institute has helped communities, often poor or minority, pursue neighborhood or regional development frameworks, finance strategies, and provide upgrades to disinvested or slum areas. Most importantly, it has helped such communities in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe to establish methods to negotiate with local and regional partners in the government and the private sector to improve an area’s quality of life. The institute is a leader in the development of technical assistance and capacity building for urban populations. Another passion of Frank’s was the preservation of non-monumental cultural heritage sites, including the rehabilitation of the medina in Fez, an area of medieval Baku, and portions of old Damascus. His lifelong commitment to such work led the French government to honor him as Knight of the Order of Merit in 1995.

The same dedication to improving the interaction between people and places marked Frank’s decades of teaching. When the American planning profession began to distance itself from physical planning in the 1970s, and the GSD’s planning program moved to the Kennedy School of Government, Frank was the one member of the planning faculty who chose to remain, convinced that the GSD must remain committed to and influential both in matters of design and planning. He understood that design ideas, and even aesthetic choices, were not independent of political, economic, and social values. His was a voice for engagement and collaboration, favoring more interaction among all of the disciplines at the GSD. His courses and studios always emphasized such interaction—planning perspectives influencing design ideas / design insights able to influence plans and policies. Upon the return of planning to the GSD, Frank strongly supported incorporating studio education into the planning curriculum, still one of the unique features of Harvard’s program.

Frank also studied at the GSD. After earning a bachelor in architecture from MIT, he received a master of city planning degree from the GSD in 1960, and shortly after was asked to join the GSD faculty. He was awarded a PhD from Harvard in 1967. Frank was an accomplished author as well. His first major book, Change and Apathy: Liverpool and Manchester During the Industrial Revolution (MIT Press, 1970), continues to offer insight about the forces unleashed during the initial period of modern industrial-era urbanization. Those issues still require our attention: protecting natural resources; minimizing pollution; stemming sprawl in some contexts and reducing egregious density in others; and striving to reduce economic inequalities. Inculcating such values in decades of students was just one of Professor Vigier’s indispensable contributions.