Maurice Culot, the Belgian architect and urban theorist who has won this year’s Richard H. Driehaus Prize, is described in an announcement by the University of Notre Dame as being “at the forefront of the creation of the modern traditional movement.” This phraseology seems to be an attempt, highly laudable, to recapture the meaning of the word “modern,” which was stolen a century ago by modern architecture.
Modern architecture is a misnomer. It should have been called “bad architecture,” or, to be more charitable, “dull architecture” or “utilitarian architecture.” It’s a good thing that so few fields of human endeavor have chosen to christen their accomplishments with a word so blatantly kidnapped from its original meaning – “modern engineering,” “modern football,” “modern agriculture,” “modern fashion,” “modern automobile” and the like – or the history of everything would be much more confusing. But then modern architecture is about the only field of human endeavor that prides itself on its rejection of precedent as key to progress. (Even fashion is no exception, though haute couture is.)
I’m sure such reflections are old hat to Maurice Culot, who has founded many organizations, written piles of books and articles, and given countless lectures devoted to “the retrieval and dissemination of knowledge about what makes a city vibrant and livable,” according to Michael Lykoudis, the dean of Notre Dame’s architecture school. The Driehaus jury put it this way:
Culot made it possible to recover the knowledge of the elements and principles that have defined the best urban environments across time and place that was nearly lost, providing a brighter future for cities, towns and villages around the globe.
It may be said that the creation and propagation of cities, towns, villages and buildings is one of the human endeavors that did its job with success around the world and for many centuries. Art, agriculture, transportation, chemistry and many other fields can say the same. Some of these fields have seen their usefulness to the human project diminish over the last half century or so, but none so much and with such evil purpose as architecture.
(I would recommend the newly published Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, Oxford University Press, by James Stevens Curl, to better understand the history of modern architecture and, hence, the validity of the word evil, though looking outside is sufficient, depending on where you are.)
Congratulations to Maurice Culot, who will receive, in addition to $200,000 (twice the amount to laureates of the more heavily publicized, modernist Pritzker Prize), a bronze miniature of the Choragic Monument of Lysikrates in Athens, the first known use of classicism’s Corinthian order on the exterior of a building. His recognition by the Driehaus Awards and Notre Dame follows last year’s award to Paris-based architects Marc Breitman and Nada Breitman-Jakov, with whom Culot has worked in the past.
This tribute to Culot is really a lesson in how to admit you know very little about your subject. I am much more familiar with the work of this year’s Henry Hope Reed Award, always bestowed (with $50,000) at the same time as the Driehaus to someone who is not an architect but has nevertheless contributed to the classical revival. This year’s Reed laureate is Carl Laubin, whose paintings have, according to Richard Driehaus, “brought another dimension to the work of architects both past and present, allowing a glimpse into a beautiful world, sometimes real and sometimes imagined.”
Over the years I have generally and inexcusably neglected the Reed awards, named for Henry Hope Reed, the leading pioneer of the revolt against “the Modern,” as he liked to call modern architecture, but I will devote a post to this year’s splendid Reed laureate soon.