Congratulations to David Schwarz, the classical architect headquartered in Washington, D.C. I first encountered him in person on a trip to see his new concert hall in Las Vegas, and learned that he was the architect of no small number of buildings I’ve been enamored with over time without being familiar with the name of the architect, including the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, which I first saw many years ago on the side trip of a visit to Dallas. And then there’s the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, which may be his most exalted work.
The Washington Post’s architecture critic, Philip Kennicott, probably would have been tooting Schwarz’s horn for years if his work had been modernist. And indeed you can find modernist buildings on his firm’s website – hopefully by other members of the firm. The firm of Robert A.M. Stern does that sort of thing, too, regrettably. Even as he congratulates his hometown boy for winning, Kennicott makes sure readers understand that he looks down his nose at the traditional cast of the work.
Another critic, Mark Lamster of the Dallas Morning News, had a few lame remarks to celebrate David Schwarz’s prize. He said that the architect’s “historicist buildings have transformed Fort Worth’s downtown into a hokey Disneyland where new and old are all but indistinguishable.”
The various different types of error in that short line deserve explication, and there’s more in the same paragraph. I will say only that the purpose of architecture, spurned by modernism, is to assemble a collection of buildings erected in one place over time that creates a symphonic whole for a city and its districts. To critics such as Lamster who have imbibed of the modernist credo that exalts novelty and contrast as the central dicta of architecture, that may seem “hokey,” but “historicist” is the wrong word to describe it. Historicist is a term that stresses time rather than the more useful factor of place as the central motive in building design. Historicism is an academic strategy used by modernist architectural historians to peg a building in time according to its style. The chief purpose is to be able to declare, with a fake plausibility, that designing buildings in such styles today is inappropriate because they are from yesterday. That is wrong, and Schwarz’s best work puts the lie to the central credo of modernism.
Lamster also is confused about the word conservative, with which he characterizes the Driehaus Prize. The prize is traditional. It is conservative only if you think that breaking with established orthodoxy is a conservative act. In fact, the predictable work of such modernists as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, and the brown-nosing on their behalf by the critical establishment, are truly conservative in the sense Lamster intends. The Pritzker Prize is an expression of conservatism, if that term is taken to mean resistance to change.
It is past time David Schwarz received his Driehaus, and I congratulate him, the Driehaus jury and its sponsor, the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. Good work!