Ackerman-James-Sloss-PremioBalzan2001Last month the Driehaus Foundation in Chicago awarded its coveted $100,000 annual prize for traditional architecture to an English architect who should be familiar to everyone. No, it wasn’t a posthumous award to an 18th century Scottish designer of buildings, furniture and decorative art. This Robert Adam is very much alive, and has been practicing in London for decades.

I met Robert about 20 years ago in New York, and have followed his career with interest since then. He is an affable, lively and intelligent man with wide-ranging interests beyond architecture and the environment. He is also active in the RIBA, pressing for more recognition of traditional architecture in Europe. No one could be more deserving of the prestigious Driehaus Prize.

The foundation also gives its Henry Hope Reed Award to a distinguished non-architect. This year that honor went (posthumously) to one of the giants of American letters: James S. Ackerman of Harvard. During his long career Ackerman virtually defined the architectural history profession for fellow Americans. He wrote books on Palladio,  Michelangelo and the Villa, and hundreds of influential articles on many subjects.

These two men have inspired classicists and non-classicists with their humanism and broad world view. If the AIA and other establishment organizations had the same pluralistic outlook we might have a positive discourse on the future of the design professions; yet, we remain mired in a bog of misunderstanding about the future of “modernism” and the avant-garde.

Palladio’s Modernity

June 15, 2011

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) hardly needs another book or exhibition to burnish his status as one of history’s most important architects. It was nonetheless exciting to see the show mounted by the Royal Institute of British Architects at the Stite Museum at Notre Dame last week. The university found itself custodian to the traveling exhibition–“Palladio and His Legacy–A Transatlantic Journey”–after the Milwaukee Museum of Art was forced to cancel its installation. “The Perpetual Modernity of Palladio,” a conference sponsored by the Notre Dame School of Architecture from June 9 through June 12, added to the excitement of the exhibition’s opening. I was fortunate to be among the lecturers and participants there, which also included Robert Adam, Leon Krier, Witold Rybczynski, David Watkin, and other luminaries.

What, we were asked to consider, was the relevance of an architect who worked in a small Italian town during the Renaissance to the complex, troubled world we inhabit in 2011? Armed with fresh research and facts gleaned from a study of 31 drawings by the master, the lecturers found numerous lessons and parallels linking the Vicentine architect to present day challenges.

Palladio was an urbanist who championed “civitas” or civic virtue among the citizens of Venice, a quality much to be desired in urban leaders today. He offered lessons to architectural educators about the skills and responsibilities necessary for the revival of our troubled profession. His famous treatise, the Four Books of Architecture, remains a model of architectural theory and scholarship, as we learn more about how it was conceived, planned and produced in 1570. Most important, his extraordinary buildings continue to enthrall and stimulate people from all over the world, no matter how their cultural biases and interpretations color their experience.

How “modern” is Palladio? In the broad sense, Palladio was one of history’s first modern architects because he worked during the beginning of the “long” period of modernization which had its end late in the last century. More importantly, this true Renaissance man worked within the universal tradition of classicism, still the most versatile and vital cultural canon in the West, and one that is increasingly relevant in an age of globalization. Where are the most recent Palladian buildings and urban projects being designed and constructed? In China, India and South America, of course.