Arts, Culture, Endeavors, Life

A Life Worth Studying

Chicago philanthropist Richard Driehaus (1942-March 9, 2021) has passed and the praises of his life coming from so many circles leave me convinced that his was a life well lived. By sheer happenstance, I learned of his existence, of his interests, his influence, and the compatibility of all that he stood for with the things that I also stand for. Sadly, I never met him, for we would have found tremendous common ground. In my estimation, Driehaus stands shoulder to shoulder with two others whose philosophies have stood tall against the present degradations of modernity: Dana Gioia (who I have met) and Sir Roger Scruton (who my other half briefly corresponded with). Such personages are not to be taken lightly. Their lives are worth studying.

JOHN LLOYD from Concrete, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Space is inadequate for detailing the panoply of awards and honors that Driehaus received during his lifetime. What he achieved is utterly staggering. How could one person, let alone one who made his fortune in funds management, leave such a mark in education, urban development, fashion, and community outreach? Driehaus did more than throw money at a few worthy endeavors and then go home. He was also a scholar, a knowledgeable art collector, a philosopher of traditional urbanism and architecture, a promoter of the city he loved and the neighborhood he grew up in. He was an entrepreneur, a mid-century car collector, and he left, as one of his legacies, a 19th-century marble mansion, which he restored and turned into a museum. (One of his life’s ambitions was to give $100 million away during his lifetime. He gave away closer to $200 million.)

Of Driehaus, one of his colleagues commented:

His giving never strayed from his basic interests, supporting beauty as a core cause in art and architecture, restoring faith in traditional urbanism, practicing a healing relationship with nature, and helping people to live their lives in dignity and in peace. . . . but the sudden jolt in the face of death has made it very obvious that his presence, his influence, his inspiration was far grander than we’d ever imagined. That the best way forward for all of us individually and together is to turn grief into resolve and continue the struggle to save this planet from randomness, carelessness, ugliness, wastefulness, and superficiality just as he would have continued to do had he lived longer among us.

Stefanos Polyzoides, Dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture

Looking Closer

Let’s revisit these words for a moment: randomness, carelessness, ugliness, wastefulness, and superficiality. They have a great deal to do with the motivations behind why this website exists. It’s much more complicated than it sounds, but if you look deeply enough into the urbanized world you will see a relationship between the societal, ecological, economic, personal and family ills of our present day that can only be described as a sort of “house that Jack built.” To fix one part of it without regards for the whole is like pulling the wrong pick-up stick out of a stack. Great ideas rarely include consideration of the soul of persons or of communities and the power of the collective psychology to make or break intended outcomes.

Driehaus grounded his great ideas with the goal of healing the human spirit through beauty, and for good reason. It is really the human spirit and what it has fed on that has brought so much disorder to this planet. You cannot correct an unworkable order without 1) first identifying where the great leap forward in civilization reached the point of diminishing returns, and 2) allowing for the positive and negative sides of human nature/egoism to cooperate with or muck up every intention to “make the world a better place.” Of those two items, I am convinced that the second is more potent in guaranteeing or destroying endeavor; hence the need to feed the human spirit with beauty.

Urban Ecology

Beauty is not random, contrary to what popular culture has to say. Neither is it a rigid top-down opinion about what is “beautiful.” It comes from a natural, but orderly, arrangement of things, which in turn produces a sense of stability in the human psyche. Driehaus was interested in creating organically ordered environments in what has been called the urban ecology of buildings. (Learn about the SmartCode open source code for planning and urban design.) Because buildings have become the new “forest,” so to speak, of populations now based principally in cities, they create the geography of neighborhoods, affecting lifestyles, psychological outlook, and family and civic relations. Driehaus fostered humane architectural principles of integrated urban design through his relationship with the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and his circle of influence with architects around the world.

He encouraged what has been called “new traditional (or classical) architecture.” It was not a strait-jacketed return to imitating old buildings, but rather a recognition of architectural developments across cultures that have stood the test of time in terms of beauty and practicability. For example, a Japanese pagoda is classical in Japan, and the style continued for centuries because it fulfilled an ongoing purpose.

Tiffany window. Sailko, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

But that is only one example of Driehaus’s applied principles of beauty. He also became a collector of Tiffany glass, for he recognized what Louis Tiffany did: that nature contains all that can be known of beauty, and that to agree with nature is to agree with beauty, and by extension, well-being. This sensibility extended to every area for Driehaus, and even though it may seem a little odd that he also collected mid-century cars, it must be noted that what he admired about them was their classical lines. They were quite superior aesthetically to the function-over-form models dominating the roads today.


At last we come to the point I really wanted to get to, which was not specifically the vast array of activities that Driehaus involved himself in, but the interconnections of all those things. If you put them in a list, it would stretch so long you would think it impossible for a human being, rich or poor, to achieve that much in a lifetime. Was it hype? I don’t think so. So how did Driehaus come to this core thing–whatever you call it–that linked his endeavors into something so complex and far reaching? Even his passing did not diminish his influence, but actually multiplied it through the lives he touched.

This is what makes him worth studying. Some comparisons are in order.

I can’t help wondering about the question of “randomness.” Many people’s lives and interests seem marked by randomness, and yet there is a difference between the unexpected serendipity of discovery and that endless searching for some purpose or idea without something to anchor the soul. The world is too often marked by the latter, which tends to dissolve into causes that start with a good idea and then take on a life of their own. In such cases, the lack of proportionality can turn good intentions into some monstrous evil. Does a healthy core intention grow organically out of rational and principled inner discourse? I think it must.

A Little Background

Driehaus, like Dana Gioia, had a Catholic education—apparently a really good one. (I have heard mixed things from those who went to Catholic schools, so there must be some that are more inspiring than others.) Both of these men were informed in a positive way by a transcendent faith accompanied by Aristotelian reasoning skills. Sir Roger Scruton, on the other hand, though he shares some similarities of thought with the first two, grew up in a completely humanistic home in an ordinary school. As a young student, he apparently turned a corner, which created a division between his outlook and that of many of his contemporaries. He apparently spent a long period of searching and ended up in his later years as a member of the Anglican church.

Each of these men studied the question of beauty and its effects upon the human spirit. Dana Gioia remarked once during a speech at a Jesuit institution, “Beauty is an attribute of the Lord,” which one rarely hears even in churches, biblical though it is. And while I won’t pretend that everyone inspired by beauty comes to the same kind of faith, it does bear mentioning that the realization of spiritual transcendence has the power to affirm the excellent above the merely expedient and to offer discernment into the whole of a matter under consideration so that outcomes are more likely to be universally beneficial.

Whatever we may conclude from delving into Driehaus’s driving motivation, it is easy to see that some people have at their center a “master plan,” as it were, for the things they want to accomplish in life. That is to say, we have all known those who, for instance, may take up something like aviation and spend their entire lives in activities and clubs that spring from that plan. And then there are others–like Driehaus, I suspect–whose core motivation ties seemingly random things together. In fact I suspect there is order to this seeming “randomness” to such persons, and that everything they do really dovetails somewhere “back of house” via that intangible thing called “purpose.” It is the why behind all that we do, not the bits and pieces that people see.

Driehaus’s driving motivation was based on a desire to raise the dignity and well-being of people through applied principles of art with a demonstrated endurance; hence his support of a “new classical architecture” (in addition to fashion, community outreach, classical cars, etc.). He was convinced that universal principles of beauty held true across cultures and gave human beings a structure that sustained order, refreshed the soul, was ecologically viable, and birthed new ideas organically. So, in a nutshell, Driehaus’s success was not based on the fact that he personally loved beautiful things (which he did) but that he recognized that the transcendent benefits of beauty are as vital to human life as water is to plants. That’s what went into all that he did.


For me the lesson has been to stay true to purpose (see Life and Purpose), for I am not one of those with the great master-plan-of-every-juncture-in-life at my core either. It is easy to get dissipated in doing stuff. If all that you do is guided by an overarching vision (purpose), though, whatever you touch will be organically tied together. Don’t let your purpose be dissipated by the opinions of those who measure its worthiness solely according to material gain. You will never feel complete if you gain the world and lose your own soul. Find your guiding star and stay the course.

Featured photo top: Example of “new classical architecture” seamlessly linking older architectural forms into a whole. Rcsmit, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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