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You are here: Articles > Art & Architecture > Ever Ancient, Ever New  Back one page.
Ever Ancient, Ever New
(Sursum Corda) Summer 1998

Ann Carey

With the first classically based architecture curriculum in fifty years, Notre Dame has re-ignited traditional church design.

St. Philip Neri, Chicago, 1995 The recently dedicated Bond Hall of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame is one of the newest buildings on campus, yet Bond Hall is also one of the oldest buildings at Notre Dame. Bond Hall claims this unusual distinction because it comprises the former Notre Dame library, built in 1917, and a new $12 million addition that blends seamlessly into the classical American Renaissance-style original building.

Indeed, it is appropriate that Bond Hall is such a smooth blend of old and new, for within its walls a new curriculum is training young architects in classical architecture. Students study the architectural theory and method expressed in the temples and arches of Greece and Rome, the churches of the Renaissance, the American classical buildings of the U.S. capital and the Beaux Arts buildings of cities like New York and Chicago: all structures that have stood the test of time.

What makes this program so new is the fact that Notre Dame is the first school in the United States to offer a classically based architecture curriculum in fifty years. At the end of this twentieth century that has been dominated by Modernist and Deconstructionist design that expresses liberation and alienation from the traditional, this return to Classicism, with its emphasis on order, symmetry, elegance and human scale, is considered quite radical. Yet, in the seven years this program has been in place, the Notre Dame School of Architecture has gained an international reputation as the center for classical architecture.

The designer of Bond Hall and of the classical architecture program at Notre Dame is Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who was hired by Notre Dame in 1989 to lead the School of Architecture. Smith had "converted" to classical architecture after spending a year in Rome, courtesy of the prestigious Rome Prize in Architecture, which he received from the American Academy of Architecture in 1979.

L.A. Cathedral design competion entry Smith also traces his interest in Classicism to his childhood in Berkeley, California, which was known as the Athens of the West for its cultural climate. Smith's undergraduate study at Berkeley had been in painting and sculpture, but after he and his bride spent two months in Vicenza, Italy, where the great sixteenth-century architect Palladio had designed numerous villas, palaces and churches, he decided to become an architect. As a practicing architect, Smith explored various styles but did not do a great deal of classical design.

When he received the Rome Prize in 1979, during that year abroad Smith was struck by the potential for genuine historical continuity provided by Classicism. On his return to the United States, he became a "new classicist" architect, one of a small but growing group of mostly youngish architects, often considered to be the mavericks of their profession.

While some Postmodern architects had begun to experiment with Classicism in the late 1970s and 1980s as a reaction against Modernism, most of that experimentation was carried out in an ironic manner or as a parody on the classical. Smith's serious engagement with classical architecture was thus a radical step that separated him from Postmodernists who dabbled in the classical but kept their distance from embracing a style they considered too traditional.

Smith first taught at Yale University and then was hired by the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1986 to teach a straight classical perspective. When Smith was invited to lead the architecture program at Notre Dame, the program was then under the School of Engineering. He persuaded the Notre Dame administration and the dean of the School of Engineering that a classical architecture program was "a natural" for Notre Dame. Classicism and Catholicism have a great deal in common, he insisted, whereas Modernism and Deconstructionism are antithetical to the Faith. Smith believes that Christianity and Classicism emanate from a common culture, and he draws a parallel between the rules of classical architecture and the structures of the Catholic faith. It is necessary to have structures and rules in both the secular and the sacred sphere, Smith points out, even though as human beings we sometimes fall to follow those guidelines. "One of the reasons I felt that I was receptive as a teenager to Classicism, or continued to have a drive to resist bad context In terms of the culture, was the issue of knowing intuitively through Catholic upbringing that there is a great deal to be learned from the past," Smith says.

While Christianity is a sacred discipline and architecture is a secular discipline, there is a great deal of crossover, according to Smith. With a predominantly Catholic student body, Notre Dame seemed to Smith to be "a fertile place" for students to understand the parallels between their faith and the style of architecture they study.

Several other links were already in place at Notre Dame to support Smith's vision. One was a component of the architecture faculty already using historical and classical models to solve contemporary urban planning problems. Another such link was a year of study in Rome, required for all third?year architecture students since 1969. That year abroad is designed to give students first-hand experience with the architecture and urbanism of great European cities. While in Rome, students make field trips to measure and draw ancient classical sites, but they also work on actual contemporary design problems in urban settings. For many students, the year in Rome instills a sense of service, a realization that the architect's role is to design not just for individuals, but more importantly, for the public or civic realm.

After Smith was hired at Notre Dame, he expanded the architecture program, which eventually became autonomous from the School of Engineering. Smith added several faculty members and developed a curriculum that would ground the students in the elements of classical architecture. This change was not without its critics, for classical architecture is based on specific elements, or rules. Smith realizes that the notion of a rule seems authoritarian to some, but insists that once a student has learned the basic rules of Classicism, the young architect can then develop a unique style.

One of the classical architects hired by Smith to help shape the Notre Dame program was Duncan Stroik, a young architect who had earned a master's degree in architecture from Yale in 1987. After graduation, Stroik had worked for Allan Greenberg of Washington, D.C., considered to be a pre-eminent classical architect. Stroik also brought with him a conviction that Catholicism and Classicism go hand in hand.

Proposed Chicago church, 1994 "I would say that Classicism is very inherent to Catholicism," Stroik explains. He contends that Catholicism and Classicism both reflect tradition as well as innovation; are timeless, yet timely; and are relevant to a particular age, as well as relevant to those things that endure. This timelessness, relevance and ability to address problems of any age are the elements which are "compelling so many people today to join the Catholic Church or to come back to the Church," Stroik observes. And they are the elements that drew him to classical architecture.

"Catholicism, it has been said, is the only institution in the history of man that had to deal with every continent and every culture through a long period of time," Stroik points out. "And classical architecture would try to make a similar claim; it has sought to deal with many cultures and to be universal."

Stroik compares the bodies of knowledge that guide an architectarchitectural treatises and texts, individual buildings, specific principles-to the guiding principles of the Catholic faith-Scripture and tradition. just as the saints and doctors of the Church have shown Catholics how to interpret Scripture and tradition in a textual way by how they lived their lives, Stroik says that architects who want to do something timeless with their own creativity can find their own saints within the history of architecture. Certainly, the bible of the classical architect is the Ten Books on Architecture by the first-century (B.C.) Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, which includes a compilation of many Greek texts. The Vitruvius work is, Stroik says, a constant reference relevant today as a basic text.

Just as there is development in Christian doctrine, Stroik notes, so too is there development in the principles of architecture. Students study a specific body of knowledge, but they are also encouraged to find their own creativity. "We encourage our students to learn these principles which should be general principles that could apply for all times and to any place," Stroik says. "But we also encourage them to find their own models or own way of expressing those timeless truths."

Stroik believes that classical architecture, with its emphasis on urban planning, could solve many contemporary cultural problems. For example, a traditional community was centered around a neighborhood, where people knew their neighbors and were close to their churches and places of commerce. In modern cities, everything is up for grabs, Stroik believes, with the growth of suburbia and outlying malls fostering the breakdown of neighborhoods, which in turn affects the culture.

Modernist buildings have also contributed to this dissolution, according to Stroik. The public housing of the 1960s is a particularly atrocious example of Modernist design, he says, and is comparable to the style in which some Eastern European communist governments housed people. This warehousing of human beings has been devastating to families and children, Stroik believes, and while architecture cannot save the human race, architecture that is humanistic and ennobling can certainly enhance the efforts of church, school and family.

Classical architects design buildings not just for today, Stroik says, but for generations to come, whether those buildings be churches, schools, rectories, day-care centers or soup kitchens. "You don't design for the '90s and then realize in the third millennium that you have to tear it down and rebuild it," Stroik says. "No, it has to be for 500 years; it has to be that good."

And that is where Classicism comes in. We may change or redo parts, according to Stroik, but in Classicism, a later architect who speaks the same language can add to a building and it's coherent. A conversation goes on between architects and buildings; they speak to one another.

This architectural conversation has helped many great buildings evolve over a long period of time, Stroik says. The United States Capitol building is a good example, having been worked on for 100 years by ten major architects. Another example is St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which had fifteen architects over a 150-year period, but is still a coherent building with distinct parts. Inherently good architecture lasts for a long time, says Stroik, and is always useful since it is not built for a particular period. Many churches in Europe were built hundreds of years ago, he points out, but are still in use today and still quite wonderful.

Most cities in the United States were blessed by an American Renaissance of classical architecture from 1893 through the 1930s, says Stroik. That renaissance is embodied in city halls, libraries and other public buildings built during that time. When these buildings were designed, they reflected numerous styles and took into account modern needs and technological advances such as cars and trains, but still tended to be broadly classical, well built, elegant and enduring, with a relationship to one another.

Modernist buildings, on the other hand, don't want to speak to one another, Stroik says, because inherent in Modernism is the desire to react to what is already there, to be different from, newer than, better than. Thus, it is problematic for Modernists to add on to a famous Modernist building because they don't want an addition that looks like what is already there.

Project for Piazza Santa Croce, Rome, 1991 Classical architects are often accused of living in the past, but Thomas Gordon Smith explains that Classicism approaches design "with the intent of making this an expression that is vital today, that solves problems of today, that is not a nostalgic kind of retreat to some distant past." Like Stroik, Smith speaks of Classicism as a vital language and cultural expression that can solve contemporary architectural problems.

The emphasis on Classicism at Notre Dame has also led to a revived interest in sacred architecture, especially since Stroik introduced a project requiring every second?year student to design a church. Not only has that project given students experience in sacred architecture, but it also has encouraged some young architects to specialize in that area.

"Church buildings are one of the most important witnesses to faith in Christ, and therefore should be works of beauty, transcendence and permanence," Stroik says. He also believes that the faithful are hungry for religious imagery depicted in arts such as stained glass, frescoes, mosaics, statuary, altarpieces, icons, Stations of the Cross, woodcarvings, plaster decorations and metal work.

The church design project also dovetails nicely with Notre Dame's classical program, for Stroik says that church buildings should reflect a continuity with the tradition of sacred architecture by using the typology of church buildings. That typology traditionally has been displayed in the forms such as basilica, Latin cross, Greek cross, centralized dome, hall church and nave. Building types such as theater, residence, barn, ballroom and art gallery are suitable for their specific purposes, Stroik says, but they are not suitable types for liturgical buildings.

Smith and Stroik are both members of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, an organization of liturgists, theologians, historians, architects and musicians who are involved in evaluating how renewal has been carried out since the Second Vatican Council. Last year, the School of Architecture hosted a national symposium on the state of Catholic Church architecture and art. Participants in this symposium plan to meet at Notre Dame again later this year to produce a position paper offering principles to influence positively the future of sacred architecture.

Plans are also being considered for developing a Center for Sacred Architecture at Notre Dame, which would draw together scholars, practitioners, pastors and theologians from around the world to study, debate and propose a new sacred architecture for the third millennium. According to Stroik, the center would be a resource for laity, architects, building committees and pastors, and would allow students to study the history of liturgical architecture as they pursue contemporary church design projects, another blend of the old and the new. +

University of Notre Dame
School of Architecture
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Ann Carey is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor, where a shorter version of this article appeared, and author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women's Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1997).

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library