Newsmaker: Richard Driehaus

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Richard Driehaus is best known in architecture circles as the founder of the Driehaus Prize, a $200,000 award given each year “to a living architect whose work embodies the highest ideals of traditional and classical architecture.”
Past laureates have included Robert A.M. Stern, Leon Krier, and Michael Graves. On March 20, the 13th prize will be awarded to David M. Schwarz, the Washington, D.C.-based architect known for designing large buildings, including stadiums and concert halls, in historically inflected styles. A second award will go to Richard Joseph Jackson, a physician, for research demonstrating the health benefits of traditional city planning as opposed to sprawl.

Driehaus supports a number of other architecture-related initiatives. Recently, he funded efforts to block the Frank Gehry-designed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington. In Chicago, he painstakingly restored an 1879 mansion designed by Edward Burling on East Erie Street, which is now open to the public as the Driehaus Museum. His firm, Driehaus Capital Management, which has over $7 billion in assets, is headquartered down the street in another Gilded Age gem, a peach-colored 1886 Richardsonian mansion designed by Henry Ives Cobb.


Architectural Record: I take it you’re partial to old buildings.

Richard Driehaus: I like what you might call good architecture, architecture that people respond to. And that tends to mean traditional. But I like some modern buildings—ones that create a sense of place.

You live in Chicago, which has been at the forefront of architectural experimentation. How do you feel about that?

We tend to get buildings that are too modern for the neighborhoods they’re in. I’d like to have an association that votes on what’s appropriate.

Are Mies van der Rohe buildings appropriate?

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.

Why are there, in your opinion, so many bad buildings?

Well, because architects build for themselves and build for the publicity. They don’t really care what the public thinks.

Is Chicago doing enough to preserve its old building?

On the South Side, they tore down all the beautiful old greystone buildings. They said, “That’s where the drug dealers are.” But instead of going after the drug dealers they went after the buildings. It was so stupid. And you don’t get your history back.

Are other cities doing better?

In New York, there’s that new building that’s just too tall. [432 Park Avenue]. And it’s also bright. Maybe if it were a different material, brick or terra-cotta, it wouldn’t be so obvious.

And London?

The problem is we don’t have enlightened policies in London. There should have been height limits. You keep on tearing down, you don’t know where you came from. It takes away the sense of place.

What cities do you like best, preservation-wise?

Prague has done a pretty great job. And Riga. Though they have a few modern structures, but they don’t impinge too much.

Those two cities were shielded from capitalism for much of the 20th century. Like Havana, which is still perfectly preserved because there hasn’t been the pressure to develop.

I went down to Havana about 10 years ago.

So do you share my concern about what will happen when free enterprise comes to Havana?

Hopefully they have laws against development. If they don’t have some good laws, it’s going to be really negative.

So you agree that free enterprise can be bad for preservation?

When capitalism is unfettered there’s no incentive to preserve old buildings. Generally there’s not enough money in historic preservation. You really need enlightened government to make it more attractive

How do you feel about the museum George Lucas is proposing for Chicago?

I collect some of the things he collects, like movie posters. The building looks like a Hershey’s Kiss; it’s inconsistent with the art inside. But the main issue is that the site is a city park, part of the Burnham Plan for Chicago, and it should be open and free forever.  So they should take the museum and put it somewhere else. Like in an industrial city.

And the proposed Obama library?

Again, I don’t think that should be in a public park.

You established the Driehaus Prize to reward people who create traditional architecture. But some of the architects you’ve given it to also do modern buildings.

The problem is that there are very few architects who practice classicism solely.

And then there are the post-modernists, who, from my point of view, not only aren’t producing traditional architecture, but are making fun of traditional architecture. Do you think they help your cause?

It’s a good question–and I wish I had a better answer. I can understand what you’re saying. But we recognize both–classicism and post-modernism. Post-modernism at least engages in a dialogue.

You’ve talked about the need for government regulation. But what about responsible investing? If you were looking to buy stock in a company, and you discovered it was about to bulldoze a row of 19th century houses to put up a massive new building, would you invest?

It depends on the company’s growth rate. I have to make money for my clients, so I can’t use the architecture as too strong an element. Or, since I’m a practical person, I would invest in the stock, and hopefully it goes up and part of the profits I would donate to preservation.

Most financial services companies want buildings with very large floor plates. Isn’t that a problem for cities?

Yes, they want big buildings. But why can’t they be big buildings with some style? Like art deco—that lends itself. San Francisco at one point said that all the new buildings over a certain height have to have a crown. That’s a good idea. It makes a city much more interesting. As for the bulkiness of new buildings, you could use the tax code to control that.

How so?

Buildings that are more sculpted could be taxed at a lower rate.

As a preservationist, do you think important modern buildings should be preserved?

We should resist tearing them down. Even Brutalist buildings. Seeing them may help turn us back to placemaking architecture.

What got you interested in the Eisenhower memorial?

Architecturally, it didn’t speak to me. We want something more representational.

So what did you do?

We hired a lobbying group—it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that.

Have you succeeded in stopping the Gehry plan?

I think it’s sort of dead.

And now what?

What we would like to do, the endgame, is to have an open competition, and see who comes up with the best design, whether it’s classical or modern.