Hilary Ballon was an outstanding scholar, teacher, curator, and administrator who stood at the top of her field both nationally and internationally. She demonstrated her prowess repeatedly during a thirty-year career through her pioneering books and articles, the exhibitions she curated, the institutions she served, and her active engagement with teaching and community service. Ballon's profile in the field of architectural history is exceptionally broad. Her abiding interest was the formation of cities, and in particular the figures who shaped them. Trained in history at Princeton and architectural history at MIT, Ballon brought to each of her books a deep understanding of the political, social, and economic forces that historical planners must negotiate in shaping great urban design.
Her first two books were dedicated to the formation of seventeenth-century Paris. In The Paris of Henri IV: Architecture and Urbanism (1991), Ballon traced the difficult rise of Henri of Navarre to the throne of France following the death of Henri III and the end of the Valois dynasty.1 To gain control over France in the period of the religious wars, Henri converted to Catholicism and rebuilt Paris as a capital city. To tell the story of his urban initiatives (the Place des Vosges and the Place Dauphine among others), Ballon had to find the papers. Previous scholars had been stumped because they sought the records in the royal archives. Ballon understood the pragmatic side of Henri and his minister the Duke of Sully and looked instead in the city archives, the Minutier central, correctly surmising that Henri would pass construction costs on to the merchants and the nobles. The book that came out of this research mapped the formation of the Paris we visit today and the shrewd strategies that underlie its present form. Describing her goal, which she would continue to employ in all of her subsequent projects, Ballon wrote: “The reader is asked to observe the buildings at an unglamorous proximity. But by witnessing them as they rise, as products of human aspirations and conflicts, and not as iconic images of urban splendor, we come closer to seeing how architectural form, social forces, and political vision together produced the Paris of Henri IV.”2
This book was recognized for its excellence by reviewers in countless scholarly journals, as well as in the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and other publications of the popular press, and was awarded the Alice Davis Hitchcock Prize by the Society of Architectural Historians. The Paris of Henri IV has become a classic. It is now routine for younger scholars writing histories of other early modern cities to use Ballon's book as their model.
With her second book, Ballon took up the work of Louis XIV's architect, Louis Le Vau, and his celebrated Collège des Quatre-Nations, today the Institut de France.3 Again, she chose a pivotal subject: a building fundamental to the landscape of Paris, on the banks of the Seine just opposite the Louvre, that stands at a stylistic crossroads in the forging of a French national style. Le Vau's Collège, Janus-like, looks back toward the Italian baroque and forward toward the chilly rigors of French classicism. Ballon's goal was to understand why. The resulting book focused on the 1650s–60s in Paris and on the surprisingly little studied Le Vau, his patron Mazarin, and the chief minister Colbert. Casting a wide net, Ballon considered the architect as armchair traveler in his library, as entrepreneur, and as industrialist; she also examined the shifting political landscape after the death of Mazarin and the rise of Colbert. The book was awarded the Prix d'Académie by the Académie Française.
As editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians from 2006 through 2008, Ballon founded the parallel digital format of the journal, JSAH Online, which became a model for other scholarly societies looking to expand the possibilities of academic publishing. In her first editorial as JSAH editor, Ballon embraced the new forms of digital publication, research, and communication, announcing the establishment of the new position of editor of multimedia and website reviews.4
In the latter part of her career, Ballon shifted her focus from Paris to her native city, New York. With this shift, she became increasingly interested in public scholarship. She curated four major exhibitions: Gateway to Metropolis: New York's Pennsylvania Stations (2000), Frank Lloyd Wright: The Vertical Dimension (2004–5), Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis (2006–7), and The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (2011–12). Her research on Robert Moses, which began in the archives housed at the bottom of Randalls Island, resulted in an exhibition that opened concurrently in three different institutions across the city. Three of these exhibitions were accompanied by major books, published in tandem with and designed to complement the exhibitions.5 This kind of public presence is uncommon among architectural historians and signals the sophistication of Ballon's abilities, her uncommon appetite for growth, and her talent for ably negotiating new challenges. She took on topics that everyone thought they understood and gave them new meaning, broad public appeal, and urgency. This commitment found expression also in her fundamental contributions to New York at Its Core, a new permanent exhibition that opened in 2016 at the Museum of the City of New York. Ballon's Future City Lab in these galleries is a handsomely designed, capacious space where visitors can experience the city's complexity and diversity through a wide variety of data, narratives, media, and—her favorite—interactive opportunities to discuss problems, study them with data, and design solutions with the technologies, maps, and ideas on hand.
Intensely interested in the future of younger generations, Ballon always relished the chance to imagine and help bring about programs that would open new possibilities for students. As a senior consultant to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she spearheaded the development of an initiative in architecture, urbanism, and the humanities that brings together the capacities of schools of architecture and humanities programs in the historical and critical study of cities, with a view to solving problems and realizing potentials attendant on the increasingly urban future. She played a similarly critical role in the creation of the Mellon initiative in support of partnerships between two-year colleges and universities, which seeks to maximize opportunities for community college students to obtain bachelor's degrees in the humanities. Ballon believed in the power of institutions to change people's lives, and throughout her career she worked to improve the mechanisms of scholarship, with the aim of ensuring its longevity and wide appeal.6
Ballon taught in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Columbia University for twenty-two years. As department chair, she demonstrated characteristic leadership and initiative, resurrecting a defunct newsletter, seeking support from a vast alumni apparatus, and creating a Visiting Committee for the department with which she raised money to renovate and redesign the department's home in Schermerhorn Hall. To bring the department into dialogue with the New York community, she organized the Columbia Seminar of Art and Society, a series of public debates on cultural issues of broad concern. Two of these seminars, “Monument and Memory” and “Cultural Heritage in War: Moral and Military Choices,” resulted in publications.
Throughout these many years, many books, and many exhibitions, Ballon maintained the highest standards as a teacher. She was an inspiration to generations of students and was justly recognized for her excellence with three teaching prizes. She used her own research interests to stimulate those of her students, leading travel seminars to foreign capitals, organizing day trips to measure McKim, Mead & White buildings, or bringing students with her to pore over papers at the New York Public Library; she would invite the strongest students to work with her on exhibitions. In addition to mentoring graduate students as they developed their own voices and research interests, she had great enthusiasm for teaching undergraduate students as they sorted out their places in the world and decided what they would do next. Ballon's teaching was characterized by a confidence, generosity, and enthusiasm that was infectious.
In 2007, Ballon left Columbia to join the faculty of New York University, where she recombined her commitments to education, urban studies, and public service to entirely new results. With an appointment as university professor, NYU's most distinguished academic rank, she taught graduate courses in urban history and planning in the Wagner School of Public Service, injecting a heady dose of humanities content into a curriculum focused on public administration. But her main responsibility at NYU was the planning of the curriculum and campus of NYU Abu Dhabi, a new, full-scale university in the United Arab Emirates built around a four-year liberal arts curriculum. As deputy vice chancellor and using her experience with Columbia's famous Core Curriculum, Ballon helped envision what a liberal arts education might be at a crossroads of the Arab world, between Asia, Africa, and Europe, with an undergraduate population drawn from all continents and a professoriate blending NYU's existing faculty with new recruits and visiting professors from many countries. Working with the firm Rafael Viñoly Architects, she deployed her analytical understanding of architecture and her keen eye for design excellence to give visual and spatial expression to the educational ideals and pragmatic needs of the new university. Throughout, the effort called on Ballon's consummate dedication to collaborative work and concrete problem solving, often among unlikely partners and in a fashion not unlike that of her great historical subjects, Henri IV and Sully, Louis XIV and Le Vau.
Outside academe and the museum world, she served as chair of her local planning board in northern New Jersey. Her knowledge of financial policy as it intersected with issues of history, design, and planning gave her a unique view on architecture as a complex and very human process. In all the phases of her work—the scholarly books, public exhibitions, and administrative projects—Hilary Ballon sought to understand the specific ways that public and private institutions have intersected in the creation of architecture and urban planning. Her legacy carries on through her books, a permanent exhibition, an entire campus, and, most especially, a universe of students, scholars, and curators inspired by her work and generous spirit.