2012 Driehaus Prize Winner Michael Graves Honored Last Saturday

March 26, 2012 in Uncategorized by Caroline

The Portland Building, 1982, designed by Michael Graves and hailed as the beginning of Post-Modern architecture. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Richard H. Driehaus Prize is an annual award given to honor major contributors to the field of traditional and classical architecture. (See the link in the previous post for more information). The award was presented last Saturday morning to the 2012 honoree, Michael Graves.

Michael Graves was not trained as a classicist, and in fact does not consider himself one today. Like every architecture student in the mid 20th century, he studied modernism, focusing especially on the work of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Then, Graves went to Rome to study at the American Academy, and, as he said, “life changed.” He developed an appreciation for the classical language by studying and sketching the architecture of Rome. It didn’t translate immediately into his own work, as evidenced by the pure modernism of the houses he designed immediately after returning from Rome. He said another turning point came at the moment of realization that modernism cannot reach out and connect with people the way traditional architecture can. His first major public building that broke with modernism was the Portland Building, which is often hailed as the beginning of Post-Modern architecture. Graves’ proposal for the building was colorful, used classical elements (though in a very abstracted and non-canonical way), and was met with great opposition from the Portland architects of the time. Graves was able to see his design realized, however, and it marked the beginning of a return to acceptance of classical forms and ornamentation.

At the award ceremony, Graves was praised for his open-mindedness. At a time when architecture from the past was considered off-limits, he recognized the importance of learning from great historic buildings. This use of precedent is taken for granted at Notre Dame, and it’s hard to imagine trying to design without it.

But is “open-mindedness” always a good in itself? I don’t think so. Open-mindedness is only good if it is combined with value judgments. As G.K. Chesterton said, the mind is designed not to be merely open, but to come to conclusions. I think Michael Graves can remind us Notre Dame students NOT to take for granted our classical education. But we also need to learn how to critically analyze and evaluate work from the past, work that is being done now, including Graves’ work, and even our own projects. Classicism takes the stand that architecture is not entirely a matter of taste, and gives us the criteria to evaluate it. And as one of our Notre Dame professors often reminds us, we must measure ourselves not only in the context of our own time, but against all of history.


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