The phrase “visual training” and companion concepts like visual learning and visual education are common constructs today in certain disciplines. Such was not always the case however. It may have been Walter Peterhans in 1940 who developed the first academic course in visual training.
Walter Peterhans was one of Mies van der Rohe’s colleagues at the Bauhaus in Dessau and Berlin before being recruited by Mies to join the architecture faculty at IIT. Educated in art and trained in photography, Peterhans is best known for the portraits and industrial images he produced in his private studio and on commercial assignment. The career which he had pursued so aggressively before leaving Germany was abandoned when he emigrated. Yet the work which he did for the last third of his life had at least as far-reaching an effect as that of the middle twenty years.
From his arrival in Chicago in the late 1930s until his death in 1960, Peterhans held the title of Professor of Visual Training, apparently offering a class every semester of the five-year architecture program as it came to be structured under Mies. In guiding 20 years' worth of architectural students through courses that taught them visual literacy skills, Peterhans laid a foundation from which countless architectural designs, both as conceptual drawings and as realized structures, grace the walls of our world’s museums and the grounds of its built environment.
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