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Making a Difference: Michael Lykoudis
Building Better Communities

The University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, the first Catholic university in America to offer architecture degree beginning in 1898, has been a bastion of traditional and classical architecture for more than a century.

Its dean, Michael Lykoudis, is the son of two high-achieving parents who exposed him to Athens, Greece, and the great cities of the world before he was old enough to drive.

Dean Michael Lydoudis critiques a fifth-year student's final project. In the spring,
fifth-year students are required to select a project of their own choosing, often working
on a project based in their hometowns. Students from the University of Notre Dame
School of Architecture come from all 50 states and abroad.
Photo courtesy University of Notre Dame School of Architecture.

For a man who grew up spending summers in ancient Athens, who roams the golden-domed grounds of such a fabled American university, it might be hard to picture Lykoudis associating himself with anything with the word "new" in the title.

But Lykoudis indeed is unblushing new urbanist; has been for years. And his town building philosophy is not one of stodgy academia, but rather one with the energy and spirit of a student activist.

"I don't think you could be a traditional architect today and not be connecting to the surrounding community," Lykoudis said. "You can't separate buildings from towns, that is the principle of new urbanism. I am a part of that camp and have been so a very long time."

Lykoudis, who has a master of architecture from the University of Illinois and a bachelor of architecture from Cornell University, has been on the faculty of Notre Dame since 1991. He worked as a project designer and architect for firms in Florida, Greece, New York and Connecticut where he worked for one of his great influences, Allan Greenberg. He also has conducted his own practice in South Bend, Ind.; Athens, Greece; and Stamford, Conn.

When he entered college, Lykoudis intended to become an advocacy lawyer. In high school, he and a friend founded an environmental advocacy organization called SAFE: Students Against a Fatal Environment.

Just a few decades later, sustainability became the core issue for everyone on the planet.

"People are telling us if we just get rid of our incandescent bulbs, we'll be fine. Those are illusions," he said. "We must build denser, more durable cities. Peak oil production is going to force us into a different way of building."

Lykoudis said from the beginning of time, great cities thrived because their focus was on community. In the past half century plus, consumerism has obliterated community and we have suffered because of it.

"My grandparents lived in Greece in a small house passed on from generation to generation. Today, the sense is to always have the latest, the newest," he said. The endless consumerism feeds our animal core. The creative process it corrodes could be used to change the way we build and live. But a lot of people are still in denial of what the future of the world is coming to."

Acting locally, Lykoudis worked with the South Bend Downtown Partnership to create the South Bend Downtown Design Center. The program immerses Notre Dame students in urban and architectural design projects in the Midwestern community surrounding their campus.

Globally, Lykoudis said urbanists and educators cannot simply focus on the doom and gloom of eroding energy and other resources. They must also sell consumers on a vision of how much greater communities can be when they are built better.

"While most people are thinking about how to keep cars part of our culture, new urbanists have to speak about cultural paradigm shifts," he said. "The Internet will solve some problems as far as allowing people to work without having to travel by car to their jobs. But we still need face-to-face contact, we still need communities and they need to be place based."

Lykoudis is hopeful that positive change can be made.

"People's perceptions have changed very quickly. Richard Nixon was a conservative when he was in office. Today he comes off like a bleeding heart liberal," Lykoudis observed. "When gas hits 10 bucks a gallon, people's perception of what makes a desirable community it going to change quickly."

Lykoudis said the people will need to elect leaders who are not afraid and who can understand that the built environment is linked to business, culture, to every element of our lives.

"When Jack Kennedy spoke, we were all riveted. It was the same with Martin Luther King and Jane Jacobs. We don't allow people to lead us anymore," observed the university dean, who said his becoming an architect and an academic brought together a social activist and a craftsman.

"This is not about gloom and doom; it is about civic responsibility," he continued "To deal with these problems ahead, we might actually find our soul again."