The Students for Classical Architecture hosted a student discussion with Michael Lykoudis, the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Dean of the School of Architecture, on February 24.  The event provided a forum to address the selection of notable postmodern architect Michael Graves as the 2012 Driehaus Prize laureate.  According to benefactor Richard H. Driehaus, “Beauty, harmony, and context are hallmarks of classical architecture, thus fostering communities, enhancing the quality of our shared environment, and developing sustainable solutions through traditional materials.” Awarded annually, the prize is given “to honor a living architect whose work embodies those principles in contemporary society.”

For those unfamiliar with Graves’ work, this excerpt from the jury’s citation is informative:

“The jury selected Michael Graves as the 2012 Driehaus Laureate with the recognition that his work can often appear to diverge from what many people would define as “traditional” architecture. The Driehaus Prize was not created to honor replication, however, but creativity: to stand as proof that all architecture relies to some extent on the past, and that a deep understanding of the past can only enrich the creative process. While Graves may be less literal in his interpretation of history than some Driehaus Laureates, classicism informs every design decision he makes.”

Among the opinions expressed during the discussion, there emerged a noticeable gap between undergraduate and graduate perspectives, which indicated a real difference in priorities.  The graduate students, with the passion of converts, assumed a more defensive posture toward the classical identity of the school and its prize, viewing Graves’ selection as a ‘dilution’ of the principles at stake.  The undergraduates generally regarded the choice as an unexpected but not necessarily objectionable direction for the award to take.  The dean, for his part, espoused a rationale of encouraging dialogue with the broader architectural community.  This appraisal did little to reassure anyone, given the university’s resounding success in recent attempts at dialogue with those of opposing views..

In fairness, the graduate students all consciously applied to a program for the study of classical architecture and traditional urbanism, often after enduring undergraduate professional programs where such values were shunned.  Furthermore, they are shelling out tuition for the opportunity to study in possibly the only place on earth where architecture’s classical canon is both admired and promoted as a viable vehicle for contemporary design.  I do not begrudge them these goals – on the contrary, I applaud them for making such a principled commitment.

Their experience, however, does not reflect that of the undergraduate program.  Since the university allows any accepted student to declare architecture as a major, a plurality of the undergraduates chose Notre Dame first and architecture second.  Some switched into architecture from engineering (or even pre-med), and even those who sought architecture from the outset were largely unaware of the classical emphasis upon matriculation.  While it is a testament to the value of classicism that so many stay the course, very few embody a doctrinaire preference.

As someone who did investigate the principles of the program in advance, I was surprised to find myself in the minority.  Even so, I do not claim to have chosen Notre Dame to learn classical architecture exclusively. (As it turned out, I’m really more of a Rococo-Romantic-Gothicist than a Classicist.)  I wrote my first paper on architecture in seventh grade while studying ancient Greece and Rome, attempting to document the use of their orders in the buildings of my hometown.  At the time, I was not capable of articulating a coherent philosophy of “the Classical” and contented myself with addressing the period at hand.  Rather, I came to Notre Dame with an intention of learning “good architecture,” or, perhaps, “architecture with a capital ‘A.’”  It was as much a visceral reaction against deconstructivism and banality as anything else.

Whether or not this ‘Architecture,’ so termed, is classical in its built result, it does find its basis in classical education.  In other words, we are here, not for an education in Classical architecture, but for a classical education in Architecture.  The trivium of the liberal arts – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – is based on study of the Greek and Latin languages.  But it is equally applicable to Greek and Latin architecture.  Functionally, one must still master the canon to practice architecture fluently, even if not explicitly employing classical details.  Shakespeare learned Latin grammar, not to imitate Cicero, but to write better English prose; the same is true of architecture.

This position, which seems to square with the jury’s criteria, gives a possible justification for Graves as an appropriate choice for the tenth Driehaus Prize laureate.  While past laureate Andreas Duany has cheered the selection on the basis that “appropriating the work of Graves to classicism is to capture an enormous amount of territory,” I do not think that that was really the objective.  One can recognize Graves’ contribution to our endeavor without either redefining him as a classicist or compromising our own ideological integrity.  Indeed, that would itself be an appropriation of the modernist conceit of the “protomodern architect” which claims Loos, Sullivan, and countless others retroactively for modernism.

Matthew Balkey is a fifth-year architecture student and aficionado (but fruitless promoter) of Wagnerian opera.  His email is