In the last issue I introduced the concept of architectural criticism and began our exploration of the historic buildings on South Quad. I hoped to convey the understanding that a neo-gothic building can succeed by quoting and interpreting the unique characteristics of different periods in gothic architecture. Unfortunately, you may have come away with the impression that every neo-gothic opus must be antiquarian, a historicist essay in stone. This is simply false.
After all, in the year 1090, the Early English style was not a revival – it represented the latest fashions and syntheses of building technology in Britain. The spirit of gothic can be expressed within the needs of any age, while still responding to a timeless perception of the Scholastic ideal. What makes it difficult to produce today is a building culture which lacks a sense of identity within the Western tradition. What we find difficult, however, is not impossible, as the innovation of two unique buildings on South Quad demonstrate.
Technological revolutions in transportation and communications were instrumental in making Notre Dame a national university, but such growth was not without a measure of tragedy: an airplane crash in March of 1931 that took the life of Knute Rockne. It began as a trembling, uncertain jostling. Stress wracked the airframe of the Fokker F.10 ever more insistently until, with a tremendous shudder, the wing failed. Moments later, the crippled craft plummeted erratically into a remote Kansas field. Back at Notre Dame, work continued unabated on an assemblage of buildings at the southern edge of campus. The fruit of Notre Dame’s success on the gridiron, South Quad, would be forever linked to the memory of the coach who had raised the university to national prominence.
Seven years later, the Rockne Memorial opened. The bold massing of ‘the Rock’ distinctively anchors the western limit of the quad. It commemorates the legacy of a life-long innovator and promoter. Its neo-gothic style fits with the other buildings; yet, it is no relic. Rather than adopt a historic look, it recreates a process, employing the elements of gothic form with a contemporary aesthetic, Art Deco. The iconographic program of this building, with shields and chiseled athletes lining its walls, exemplifies 1930s design in exquisite detail. The central block, with the vertical reach of its buttresses, exudes strength in the sheer physicality of its presence. Viewing that outline, silhouetted against a fading sunset, there is no residue of repressed cathedral, or parliament. The neo-gothic molds itself to the modern gymnasium in apparent effortlessness.
For comparison, I include a detail from the elevation of the Los Angeles Public Library, designed in 1925 by Bertram Goodhue. The references here are neo-Egyptian and Spanish Colonial motifs, but once again the historical idioms have been sublimated into a thoroughly Art Deco composition. In this way, it is clearly possible to build a neo-gothic building which is nonetheless an authentic representative of its own time and period.
Elsewhere on South Quad, Hurley Hall similarly adapts neo-gothic styling to a later aesthetic. The fenestration (arrangement and proportion of windows on a façade) covers an expanse to rival Wollaton Hall by the Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson. The building as a whole is a rather brilliant reworking of a country manor to produce an academic facility. The steamship bas-relief adorning the tympanum, or panel above the central door, expresses the spirit of progress so essential to 1930s undertakings. Even the globe in the foyer of Hurley feels dated to that era of ocean liners and zeppelins – the sort of map that Indiana Jones flies over with a bold red route. Could you imagine a more appropriate home for the International Studies Program?
Next door is Riley Hall, which, free from any neo-gothic pretensions, distinctively combines arts-and-crafts details to the vernacular yellow brick of earlier buildings on campus. While the only building of its kind on the quad, it still manages an unobtrusive, almost hidden presence among the pines and sidewalks.
The examples set by these buildings give our University’s patrimony a remarkable and individual character. They open our eyes to the potential latent in our present endeavors to produce an architectural scenography worthy of the identity and mission of Notre Dame. In future installments, I hope to address just how well the more recent additions to our campus complement and enhance this vision.