Richard Driehaus, who died suddenly at age 78 of a cerebral hemorrhage at home on March 9, was beloved among architects and historic preservationists for his stewardship of old buildings, especially the relatively unsung treasures of his native Chicago. The Windy City is over-celebrated for its modernist buildings, and yet in their dark shadows survive many historic structures, no small number of which have been preserved by the prodigious Driehaus generosity.
He is most well known for having founded the Driehaus Prize, which yearly since 2003 awards a single architect for a lifetime of work in the classical and traditional languages of architecture. The modernist Pritzker prize, often called the Nobel of architecture (a misnomer, as Alfred Nobel intended to reward work that benefited society), comes with a stipend of $100,000. Every year critics like me take joy toying with the fun fact that the Driehaus stipend is twice as valuable (in sheer monetary terms): $200,000. A Pritzker prize can make a career more lucrative in today’s world than a Driehaus prize, but each individual Driehaus laureate could make the world more beautiful than the entire slate of Pritzker laureates all rolled together in one.
To prove it, the painter Carl Laubin was asked by the folks at Driehaus and at Notre Dame, whose school of architecture administers the Driehaus program, to do a capriccio of the work of the first ten Driehaus laureates. That painting sits atop this obituary. At the bottom is a collage of work by Pritzker prize laureates. Although you can compare them to each other, there is simply no comparison. Period.
I saw Laubin’s painting at the 2013 Driehaus celebration of the prize for Thomas Beeby. There, on an unforgivably rare trip to my native city of Chicago (we moved to the District of Columbia when I was two), I met Driehaus after the ceremonies for Beeby and David Watkin, the British historian who won that year’s Henry Hope Reed award ($50,000 for a non-architect who has cultivated the traditional city, its architecture and art through writing, planning or promotion). We had a very brief conversation.
He was clearly a gentle and civilized person, even if he was (or maybe because he was) a financier. By age 13 he had parlayed money from a paper route and his boyhood coin collection (noted in an excellent NYT obit by Sam Roberts) into his own stock portfolio, and from there over several decades he grew a fortune in mutual funds. (His firm now oversees $13 billion in assets.)
Here are several quotations from the Book of Driehaus as set forth by Timesman Roberts in his obituary:
“I believe architecture should be of human scale, representational form and individual expression that reflects a community’s architectural heritage,” he told the architect and urban designer Michael Lykoudis in an interview for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in 2012.
Asked whether he considered modernist buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for example, to be appropriate, he told Architectural Record in 2015: “They’re mechanical, industrial, not very human. It’s like my iPhone, which is beautiful, but I wouldn’t want the building I live in to look like that.” He added: “Architects build for themselves and build for the publicity. They don’t really care what the public thinks.”
“The problem is there’s no poetry in modern architecture,” he said in an interview with Chicago magazine in 2007. “There’s money — but no feeling or spirit or soul. Classicism has a mysterious power. It’s part of our past and how we evolved as human beings and as a civilization.”
It is, naturally, too early to tell whether the Driehaus prize program, or the many other charitable, preservation and art organizations that he has helped over the years, will enjoy support from the Driehaus organizations going forward. The good work already done by the great philanthropist on behalf of beauty in the world stands head and shoulders above that done by most individuals.
But it is not too early to recognize that citizenship does reflect hierarchy, no less in human society than in classical architecture. Citizens are ranked, naturally and inevitably, for the good they do – as a building or the virtuosity and placement of its decorative elements do for the beauty of a street or a city. It is perhaps easier to view this hierarchy on the face of a building. Among citizens, Richard Driehaus must certainly rank up near the apex of the hierarchy of those who strive to bring enlightenment, in the form of beauty, to our human race. May he rest in peace.