In Memoriam, Jean-Pierre Protzen

On January 10, 2021, Jean-Pierre Protzen passed away due to complications with COVID-19, two days after he lost his wife to the same cause.  JP was my dissertation advisor, and one of the most positive and supportive people in my life.

Jean-Pierre Protzen
Jean-Pierre Protzen (image from Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design website)

JP is best known for his work on Inca architecture and masonry, but our relationship was based on his role leading the design theories and methods (DTM) program in Berkeley’s Architecture Department, which he had taken over following the 1989 death of Horst Rittel, whom JP referred to as a mentor.

It is almost 30 years now since I first met JP, as he was often called by those who knew him.  In the fall of 1991, I applied to the Design Theories and Methods program in Architecture, despite knowing little about architecture. I was working as a software designer with a student of Horst Rittel and JP, and in discussing software design, he often brought up theories he had learned in his program, and those theories seemed very much in tune with my intellectual concerns.

When I applied to the program, JP took a chance on accepting me. He continued to believe in me for the rest of his life. He was always supportive and appreciative of my work. He was also accepting of my personal limitations—I struggle with self-doubt and anxiety—and encouraged and showed patience, which I badly needed. I cannot overstate the value of his support. I struggled with my dissertation, and JP supported me. 

At UC Berkeley, where world-renowned scholars are common, JP belonged. Despite his intellect, he, like too few others, was intellectually humble. He listened, understood, analyzed, and criticized without trying to impose his agenda or ideas. To me, his analyses and insights were sound. To be sure, many of those he credited to Rittel or others, but it takes great intelligence combined with humility to competently weave together myriad sources into a coherent story and then give the credit to others. The feedback he gave me on my work was on-target, and consistently helped me move forward and improve my own work. 

In the years I worked with him, I never noticed JP trying to promote himself. He pursued ideas that interested him, rather than advertising his own place; his motivation was interest, not self-interest. With me, this manifested as a focus on the work we did together, and not the work for which he was best known. I hardly ever remember him talking about the Inca while I was a student. There were maybe a couple of years that he used an Inca example in the Architecture 130 course that I helped him teach, but he did it to illustrate concepts in Design Theories and Methods. Later, I helped him edit the archived notebooks of archaeologist Max Uhle’s work on Inca sites in Peru’s Pisco Valley, but aside from that, when he was working with me, he was always focused on the work that I did, and never on the Inca work that was truly his greatest interest and enthusiasm (at least at that point in his life).

I will not try to write a biography of JP; others can do that better.  I just want to express my deep gratitude and appreciation.