The annual Driehaus Prize, named for Chicago philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus and administered by the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, recognizes the career of work in the classical style by living architects. It has been handed out since 2003, and the sum of buildings by its laureates, if collected and arranged neatly in a valley or on a hill, perhaps near a body of water, might be the most beautiful settlement in the history of mankind. The very idea is a valuable, indeed a dangerous tool in the hands of the classical revival.
This year’s Driehaus Prize goes to a pair of architects who are well known in the classical community, but strangers to the general public, as are most architects, especially in the United States. Marc Breitman and his wife, Nada Breitman-Jakov, the founders of Atelier Breitman, in Paris, are best known for the community they planned and designed outside of Paris called Le Plessis-Robinson. They took a dreary cityscape typical of modern public housing projects and, beginning in 1990, transformed it into a paradise.
Curiously, from olden times a plessis was a village surrounded by a fence made of branches. This particular village, reaching back before 839, took its surname from various of its rulers or leading citizens – Raoul, Piquet and (after the 1789 revolution) Liberté. In 1909 it was merged with a neighboring village, Robinson, named for a cabaret whose theme was a fictional treehouse in the manner of that built by the shipwrecked family in The Swiss Family Robinson (which itself harked to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). After WWII, the former village/commune, by then a barracks town for Parisian gendarmes, was gobbled up by public housing. It had grown deplorable by 1990, probably well before 1990, when the Breitmans stepped in.
A passage from the Driehaus jury’s citation reads:
The radical redevelopment of Plessis-Robinson (1990–2017), a notorious working-class suburb, was realized under extremely difficult political conditions. With the Breitmans as principle architects, a neglected neighborhood of large scale housing blocks with few civic and commercial spaces was transformed into a thriving and proud city of the Ile-de-France and Région Parisienne. Splendid new avenues, squares, boulevards and parks are lined by beautiful street façades and with a focus on elegant public buildings.
It is easy to imagine the “extremely difficult political conditions” involved. Without being privy to the details, I would imagine that the politics at least partly revolved around an awareness that the impact of a beautiful place replacing an ugly place could be positively revolutionary. The feeling of “Danger, Will Robinson!” probably erupts in the minds of those associated with the established political/development/architecture complex every time public mention is made of Le Plessis-Robinson. “Don’t let the public know about that place,” the modernists no doubt say to themselves (at least), “or our goose is cooked!”
I am sure that over the years the project has been written about derisively, as if a beautiful place were inappropriate in modern times. Similarly conceived places in America, such as Seaside and Celebration to name just two, or Poundbury, in Britain, are regularly condemned in the architectural press, which with few exceptions operates as a tool to censor news of beautiful new architecture. Could Le Plessis-Robinson have avoided similar treatment in the French architectural press? Unlikely!
I attended the 2013 Driehaus awards ceremony in Chicago and got to see a painting commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the awards program. The capriccio by Carl Laubin actually does assemble works by the first ten Driehaus laureates and lays them out in an evocative panorama (see below). Predictably, the result is an enchanting, paradisical townscape. In fact, while the buildings are more diverse, they bring to mind the view of Le Plessis-Robinson atop this post. The painting, the actual village, and others of their like suggest the aesthetic superiority of communities whose design is buttressed by a design language steeped in beauty. Steeped in beauty is important caveat because a village constituting the works of, say, Le Corbusier might have a commonality of form as the basis of its design (hardly anything comparable to an actual architectural language), but it would be ugly – or let’s say boring, to avoid the taste bugaboo – something like the public housing that the Breitmans replaced in Le Plessis-Robinson.
The Breitmans also have projects – mostly single buildings – in Belgium, Holland and elsewhere, including other places in France, such as in Paris. They are worthy recipients of the 2018 Driehaus.
(I wrote about Le Plessis-Robinson in a 2012 post published in the first four years of my blog, which were purged by the Providence Journal in 2013. Part of my research for that post came from a piece by architecture writer Charles Siegel, “Le Plessis-Robinson: A Model for Smart Growth,” in Planetizen back in 2012. Below, after the Laubin painting, are some of Siegel’s photographs of Le Plessis-Robinson.)
Here are some shots of Le Plessis-Robinson from Charles Siegel’s article: