A Toast to the Protector of the Body of Work
It is with one part personal pride, one part personal joy and many, many parts appreciation that I dedicate this Parchment post to congratulate and celebrate our founder, partner and design leader, David M. Schwarz, the 2015 Richard H. Driehaus Prize Laureate.
As most of you know, the Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame is the world’s highest accolade for the practitioners of classical and traditional architecture. So, in honor of this momentous occasion, I would like to devote this entry to answering the question: How did David Schwarz become a world leader in traditionally inspired architectural design?
David did, after all, receive his Master of Architecture from Yale University School of Architecture which, in the mid-70’s, was not exactly considered a hotbed of classicism and traditional design ideals.
Side Note: One of David’s Yale mentors was the late, great Charles W. Moore. Charlie, as he was known by students and professionals alike, once lectured on what he called the Architects’ Continuum, wherein he espoused the notion that architecture must be more than merely inhabitable three-dimensional sculpture, and that we are all part of a continuum from ancient builders, through the ages, up until today and beyond.
Getting back to the question at hand, the short answer is: geography.
After Yale and three years of apprenticeship in New York City at three different firms – two of which were those of the modern masters Paul Rudolph and Edward Larrabee Barnes – David moved to Washington, DC on what one might consider a whim or a lark. Disenchanted with New York corporate practices, David sought a place to hang out his own shingle. He chose, DC because 1) he could afford to buy a townhouse shell in the historic Mount Pleasant neighborhood and 2) his older sister, Hope, lived here.
Like most nascent DC architectural practices, David started (note: before my time) with a series of decks, kitchens, townhouse renovations and additions. In the slack times, he would renovate his own townhouse and then refinance it to support his budding firm. Our partner Tom Greene was amongst David’s first part-time architectural interns/part-time drywall finishers. Thankfully, by the time I joined the fun, the construction was over.
These early commissions were scattered about the Washington historic districts of Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle and Capitol Hill. Those who know our fair city know that it is these neighborhood that give DC its basic traditional character, not the classical stone monuments of the National Mall and surrounds. These neighborhoods formed a veritable learning lab in which we all honed our craft under David’s direction.
From early on, we have said that a keen understanding of the past is fundamental to designing the present, and that it also provides keys to the future. This is more than simple marketing hype; it is a basic tenet of David’s design philosophy. In fact, this adage, as stated in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is carved in stone at John Russell Pope’s National Archives Building, a short walk from our second office on 11th Street, NW in Washington’s old Downtown East: “What is Past is Prologue.”
David, however, has never led us dogmatically down a path toward a singular architectural polemic. Some of our buildings are more modern than not. Others, or should I say most, are more traditional than not. The point is, each structure is customized to the needs of the client, site and, as well as to the constraints of program, budget and schedule. David’s portfolio is a patchwork quilt of unique, humanist works that enrich the quality of urban life.
Rather than polemics, meaningful architecture is about weaving together a series of interlocking themes that can be employed to greater or lesser degree as appropriate to the given project at hand. How does a building meet the ground and sky? What is the balance between horizontal and vertical elements? What are the proportions and rhythms of solids and voids? How should one juxtapose a varied and vibrant palette of materials? What is the interplay of these materials with natural light, shade, and shadow? How does the structure reflect its environment and create enjoyable open space? Most importantly, how does it employ appropriate ornament to create a sense of human-scale? And, lastly, how does it fit into the architects’ continuum?
To David, architecture is a process of discovery, not the production of a product.
In 1979, weeks after I joined the firm, David got what we generally consider one of our biggest opportunities. We were hired by a cadre of Washington lawyers to design the first major new construction building in the new Dupont Circle Historic District under the brand new DC Preservation Law. In fact, it was his firm’s first new construction, concrete-framed, elevator building ever. Quite a significant break for a firm incorporated for less than a year. 1718 Connecticut Avenue, NW was approved by the then Joint Committee on Landmarks (now Historic Preservation Review Board) on its first presentation, the only building with such distinction for many, many years thereafter. [To learn more on the backstory of 1718 and its impact on the firm’s growth, please see our previous post of October 22, 2013, Prof. Peabody’s Improbable History of Planning: How We Began Working in Fort Worth.]
And as they say, “The rest is history.” From DC to Texas and on to New York, California, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, the Carolinas, Tennessee and beyond, David and colleagues have polished the craft and fine-tuned a unique, humanist design direction. Our beliefs are ones of pragmatism, experience, emotion, and, I dare say, the so-ever-out-of-fashion, populism. We have all heard David advocate that, “It is not how a building thinks, it is about how it feels.” As such, our traditional and classically-derived works are not slavish executions of specific classical orders or traditional vernacular styles.
Perhaps not unexpected, given David’s idiosyncratic undergraduate work at St. Johns College and the plurality of architectural thought amongst the Yale faculty of his time, David’s designs are marked by an underlying playfulness and an unapologetic eclecticism. Indeed, for years, whenever we would complain about him arbitrarily changing his mind or reversing design directions, he would quote Emerson’s Self Reliance, stating “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Only his grammar is classical; upon closer inspection, the vocabulary is uniquely of our time. We strive to reinterpret, modernize, and stylize the traditional vocabulary to create new 21st-Century architectural idioms. In this regard, we are not unlike what the aforementioned Pope was in the 20th-Century. We do not shy away from such titles as neo-eclecticists, contextualists, humanists and modern-day traditionalists. What we do is not for everyone, but I, for one, am sure glad it has its place.
I could go on for days about David’s take on the urban environment (We’re not New Urbanists. What we do is good, old fashion urbanism.) and every other aspect of design. But, I won’t. I must leave something for our dear readers’ process of discovery.
In closing, on behalf of all our colleagues at David M. Schwarz Architects, and the legions of interns and architects that have passed through our doors over more than three and a half decades, I thank David for his stalwart leadership and design inspiration. David not only possess a keen design sense, he also knows how to push us all toward the best possible buildings in today’s day and age. David is our toughest critic, the protector of the body of work. On many occasions, we have heard him utter, “Not everything the firm designs has to be what I would have designed myself, but I have to at least like everything.” Those of you who know and love him – and know his strong likes and dislikes – know that it is no easy task.
So let us all give three cheers and raise a glass to my friend, partner and mentor, David M. Schwarz, the 2015 Driehaus Laureate. He has made the built environment a better place.
The preceding post was authored by DMSAS Principal Craig Williams who has been with the firm for over 35 years.