Sunday, March 17, 2013

Master of Tradition: Thomas Beeby receives Driehaus Award Saturday; documentary The Invisible Hand debuts on WTTW Thursday

Harris Theater, Millennium Park, Chicago (click images for larger view)
Update: photographs from the award ceremony here.

It was announced all the way back in December, but on Saturday, March 23rd, architect Thomas Beeby will be finally be presented with the 2013 Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame,  which honors “lifetime contributions to traditional, classical, and sustainable architecture and urbanism in the modern world.”  The award comes with $200,000 and a classically-styled trophy that looks a bit like a Monopoly token on steroids, but is actually a bronze miniature of the Choregic Monument of Lysikrates.

Beeby, born in 1941, is chairman emeritus of HBRA Architects.  He was educated at Cornell, and later at Yale where he eventually became Dean of Architecture.  Beeby was one of the founding members of the Chicago Seven, named after a notorious group of 60's activists indicted and tried for their tactics in opposing the war in Vietnam.  The architect's Chicago Seven, which also included Stanley Tigerman, Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Freed, James Nagle and Ben Weese, rebelled against the constraints of Miesian modernism as it ossified after the master's death.
United States Federal Building and Courthouse, Tuscaloosa - photo:
Although united in their opposition to the straightjacket of Mies, the rebellion took a number of different forms, from trendy Post-Modernism to a more serious commitment to neo-classicism on the part of architects like Beeby.  In 2011, the opening of his Federal Courthouse in Tuscaloosa was seen as a major victory in the war on modernism in that Beeby's Greek Temple design replaced what was originally supposed to be a more contemporary building by Carol Ross Barney, architect of the Federal Building that replaced the Alfred P. Murrah office building in Oklahoma City bombed by Timothy McVeigh.  Barney's design was deep-sixed by Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, who wanted something more traditionally imperial for a structure that's rumored will eventually take on his name.  (Truth be told, the sheer awfulness of Charles H McCauley Associates' 1964 Tuscaloosa County Courthouse is almost enough to put anyone off not just modernism, but architecture, period.)
Harold L. Washington Library, Chicago
Beeby may be a classicist, but the variety of his designs indicates he's no ideologue.  His solutions are varied and lovingly detailed.  His most famous building in Chicago is undoubtedly the Harold L. Washington Library, on State between Van Buren and Congress.  As we wrote in 2004 in The Road to Chicago's Harold L. Washington Library, Beeby beat out entries from design/build teams that included Canadian architect Arthur Erikson, Dirk Lohan, Skidmore Owning  and Merrill, and a typically daring proposal from Helmut Jahn.  Last time I checked, the models were still on exhibit on the library's 8th floor, and you can also see them all here.
Back in 2004, I wrote of Beeby's design as “Settling for Less”, but my most strident objections were actually more about program.  Although there are now functioning spaces at street level, for years after the library opened, it would take several escalators and the better part of five minutes before you got to anywhere in the building where you would actually find books.
The graceful, sun-filled Winter Garden at the top seems more like a machine for producing rental revenue than a public amenity.  The first floor atrium, complete with round opening into the basement space,  has always struck me as knowing all the notes but not the tune.  Generously proportioned, with mezzanine balconies, it's always seemed to be so four-square that it conveys an uncomfortable, cramped experience.  From the start, however, I've always loved the graceful, naturally-lit reading alcoves lining the outer perimeter of the large floorplates.  To me, this kind of specificity is the real response to the chilly generic quality universal-space modernism often falls preys to.
Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Ashford, CT - photograph:
As seems to have become the tradition, the Driehaus is again underwriting a 30-minute documentary on this year's Prize laureate.  Less evaluative than celebratory, they're still entertaining and informative, including extended interviews with the architect being honored.  (It's a bit of a mystery why the Pritzker doesn't do something like it. )  The Invisible Hand: Architect Thomas Beeby, produced by Dan Andries and hosted by Geoffrey Baer, will premiere this Thursday, March 21st at 8:00 p.m. on WTTW, Channel 11, with rebroadcasts Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at  10:30 p.m..
Daniel and Ada L. Rice Building, Art Institute of Chicago

In addition to the award to Beeby, architectural historian David Watkin will be presented this year's Henry Hope Reed Award, which comes with $50,000 and recognizes “an individual outside the practice of architecture who has supported the cultivation of the traditional city, its architecture and art through writing, planning or promotion . . . ”

Another great thing about the Driehaus is that this Saturday's ceremony, which takes place at 11:00 a.m., March 23rd, is free and open to the public - no reservations required.    It's a rare opportunity to see inside the uber-classical Marshall and Fox John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium, 50 East Erie. If it's anything like last year's event, which honored architect Michael Graves, it should be a fascinating morning.

Of timelessness and kitchen timers: Michael Graves in Chicago.
Michael Graves 2012 Driehaus Award

[from 2004)  The Road to the Harold L. Washington Library
[from 2005] Classicists at the Gate

Thomas Beeby: Art Institute oral history with Betty J. Blum.

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