Robert Jan Van Pelt

Robert Jan Van Pelt, professor, architectural historian, author (b at Haarlem, The Netherlands 15 August 1955).
Robert Jan Van Pelt, professor, architectural historian, author (b at Haarlem, The Netherlands 15 August 1955).

Van Pelt, Robert Jan

Robert Jan Van Pelt, professor, architectural historian, author (b at Haarlem, The Netherlands 15 August 1955). Van Pelt received his post-secondary education at the University of Leiden: an undergraduate degree in art history and classical archaeology (1977), a graduate degree in architectural history (1979), and a PhD in the history of ideas (1984).

Van Pelt is a professor at the school of architecture in the faculty of environmental studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Since his arrival in 1987, his teaching responsibilities have included courses in the cultural history of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the 19th century, alongside electives on topics ranging from urban history to film history. Van Pelt's participation extends to the design stream, teaching studios and supervising thesis projects.

He has distinguished himself as a scholar and expert on the Holocaust, a lifelong pursuit that originated with his doctoral studies of the Temple of Solomon under Renaissance scholar Frances Yates. What began as a specific investigation into the architectural entity of the crematoria at Auschwitz has evolved into an intellectual and historical enterprise of Odyssean proportions.

Considering the historiographical implication of placing Auschwitz within the narrative of architectural history, van Pelt wrote Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism (1993), co-authored with C.W. Westfall. Years of research on and analysis of Auschwitz's construction history established links between the camp, the town and the region, which then became the focus of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (1996), a joint collaboration with Deborah Dwork.

In 2000, acknowledged as the leading world-expert on Auschwitz, van Pelt participated in Deborah Lipstadt's defence team in the civil suit brought by British Holocaust denier David Irving, who was ultimately defeated. Van Pelt wrote a 770-page expert report that he defended in court over five days of cross-examination. Substantial parts of this expert testimony, along with a more general analysis of the role of Auschwitz in Holocaust denial, formed the basis for The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (2002).

Holocaust: A History was published in 2002. Again co-authored with Dwork, the book spans all of Europe and the years prior to the Second World War up to present day. Its multifaceted approach to its subject encompasses moral and ethical dilemmas in addition to social, cultural and political history.

Van Pelt has contributed countless essays to numerous books and journals for the past 25 years. Other professional activities include his involvement in films and television documentaries, including Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999) and Auschwitz: The Blueprint of Genocide (1994), both initially televised in Great Britain. Van Pelt continues to undertake a great many projects relating to the Holocaust, German expansion into eastern Europe, and the history of refugees in the 20th century.

Academic honours include the distinction of Outstanding Professor in 2005 from the University of Waterloo for his performance in teaching and scholarship. Van Pelt was named a fellow (2002-04) of the faculty of environmental studies, University of Waterloo, in recognition of his widely known and internationally respected scholarly work, and for his high level of commitment and dedication to his department and faculty. He won the Spiro Kostof Award (1997) from the Society of Architectural Historians and the National Jewish Book Award (1996) for Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present, and was distinguished as a fellow (1994-95) of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York.