Richard H. Driehaus Museum

A conversation with philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus about the importance of traditional architecture.

Cities of the future are rarely imagined to include Corinthian columns, but for philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus, who established the Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame a decade ago, "Classical architecture and traditional urbanism represent a culture’s highest aspirations."

Driehaus is fine with density and mixed-use but is less convinced by more contemporary approaches to them. He seems to blame modernism for sprawl (I’d argue instead that the refusal to actually hire architects for these projects, modern or otherwise, is more on target) but keeps an open mind: his foundation funds the restoration of mansions from the Gilded Age as well as architectural excellence in low income housing.

William Bryan Annex by Driehaus Prize Recipient Michael Graves

In just a few weeks Driehaus will be presenting the 2012 Driehaus Prize to Michael Graves (an architect who’s often succeeded in stoking the flames of the old vs. new debate as much as for his Target teapot), for his work in redefining “the architect’s role in society.” Past winners have included the similarly outspoken and often controversial architects Robert A.M. Stern, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

In an email interview, I asked Driehaus, among other questions, how he saw traditional architecture "saving the American City"?

RD: There’s more to liking traditional architecture than just being afraid of the new. Beyond the environmental value, the social aspect is essential. Sprawl separates people. Imposing, impersonal buildings that bear no resemblance to their communities are off-putting. Traditional architecture draws people to its harmonious, human scale. Local, natural materials not only protect our environment, but connect us to it. And the character of a community is preserved in attention to historical precedent so that we don’t have a cookie-cutter country but a patchwork that represents who we are both individually and collectively. I believe that cities should be built to last, so that we retain the unique sense of place that accrues over time.

I see the Driehaus Prize as being one piece of the puzzle. Through my foundation, I also give an annual prize for architectural excellence (sometimes modern in style) in a moderate to low income neighborhood in Chicago. Through The Driehaus Museum in downtown Chicago, I have been able to save the last of Chicago’s grand gilded-age mansions. There is room for a lot of different passions and opinions in architecture. 

Could you speak to your belief in the importance of traditional architecture as a mode of environmental and city-saving reform?

Michael Lykoudis, dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, is a passionate advocate for sustainable architecture and I’ve learned from him. I hope I’m doing him and the subject justice to say that traditional architecture is an antidote to cheap, disposable construction and suburban sprawl. The environmental benefits of buildings that will stand for centuries—rather than being torn down and replaced within decades, decimating our natural resources—could be exponential and essential to preserving our way of life. Buildings that use local materials, construction techniques that minimize heating and cooling costs, dense neighborhoods that promote walkability and the use of public transportation, all these promote the sustainability of the built environment.

Detail of housing by Robert A.M. Stern, 2011 Driehaus honoree, for Seaside, Florida

Does this, by extension, mean there is not a place for modern and more experimental visions of cities and the built environment? How do you feel about contemporary, sustainable architecture?

When it comes to sustainability, I welcome solutions in any form, but many of the modern, technological methods, however promising, remain unproven. The environmental value of traditional architectural techniques has been established over centuries. And, regardless of their technological efficiencies, if new buildings are constructed in a way that makes them obsolete within decades, the burden on our resources to build and rebuild our cities will be too great.

You see traditional architecture as part of the increasing interest in more traditional skills (farming, canning, cooking)--can you expand on that?

It’s about the satisfaction that comes from meaningful work. I’ve heard the term "slow architecture." Like the “slow food” movement, it describes an architecture whose followers care passionately about the quality of ingredients, about techniques that require practice to master, about a connection to the past and a legacy for the future, about the value (in every sense of the term) of a local focus. And, when the work is done, the intricacies of traditional architecture, like a good meal, offers so much to savor.

Top image courtesy The Richard H. Driehaus Museum (Photo by Alexander Vertikoff)

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