Articulating on Architecture:

Part I of Matthew Balkey’s Critical Commentary on the Architecture of Notre Dame

At Notre Dame, we are blessed with a campus of well-crafted and beautifully articulated buildings.  We inhabit a definite, familial place.  We have inherited this place from the generations of students, faculty, administrators, and alumni who revered and improved its grounds.  This article constitutes the first installment of a new feature for the Irish Rover: an architectural criticism column.

Formal criticism, one of the most significant responsibilities of journalism, figures prominently in virtually any student publication.  Staff writers regularly critique such varied subjects as the latest music, movies, fashions, and hot dog prices.  Conspicuously absent from this panoply of judgment is any semblance of architectural criticism.  While pedagogic studio criticism is the backbone of architectural education throughout the world, few schools explicitly teach the science of writing critically about architecture.  Whether for popular or professional consumption, the task is largely separated from the architectural academyEven our national media landscape is largely devoid of quality architectural criticism.  Small-town papers are content to wax poetic about real estate listings, and the dedicated, nationally-syndicated columns are “all Zaha, all the time.”  The result: the 99% of Americans who are not obsessed with (or even aware of) architect Zaha Hadid, and have toured enough “4BR, 5 Bath with GRANITE COUNTERTOPS” to house half of Florida, have become disenchanted and distanced from the practice of architecture in this country.

People live in sprawl, they shop in big box stores, they sit in traffic for hours staring at bland buildings and empty parking lots, and they yearn for something better.  Without trust in the profession to ‘get it right,’ without engagement, dialogue, and accountability, that better world will never be.  And although everyone has a responsibility to participate, it is the role of the architecture critic to foster this cultural commentary.  This inaugural column seeks to establish a baseline characterization of the architecture of Notre Dame, with the promise of future installments to address recent and ongoing construction.

With that in mind, we shall begin by looking to the historical core of God Quad and South Quad, where the underlying architectural qualities of campus are most apparent.  Here the buildings adroitly achieve a cohesive unity without the uniformity endemic to newer construction.   At a glance, it is well-built and well-aged Collegiate Gothic.  Age and craftsmanship, however, are not the only characteristics that separate the edifices of the 1920s and 30s from their newer neighbors.  Each one has a unique pedigree.  In truth, there has never been a pure Gothic style, but rather the additive application of new building technology that manifested itself in countries throughout Europe.  The best neo-Gothic works reflect those local traditions. 

For example, South Dining Hall, designed by Anglo-Catholic Ralph Adams Cram, abounds with untraced lancet windows and simple buttresses.  These Early English elements, which originated in the century following the 1066 invasion, reflect the introduction of French and Norman precedents to Saxon construction.  Armed with this understanding, one can easily draw an analogy to Notre Dame, a university founded by French priests newly arrived in the vast plains of an English-speaking land.

Similarly, Dillon and Alumni halls exhibit a Continental sensibility, but one derived from the early Renaissance period.  In the ordering of wings and courts, dormers and gables, they create an architectural ‘microclimate’ between South and West Quads.  Today the embracing armature of their layout is universally applied: Dormitories from the Pasquerilla twins to Duncan splay wings in all directions.  At first, this was quite revolutionary, for Sorin, Walsh, Morrissey, and other similar dorms are essentially variants on simple boxes and bars.

The window rhythm, stone revetment, and interstitial brick of Dillon and Alumni hearken back to the work at Blois during the reign of Louis XII.  In details and ornament the character is strictly Gothic, with a Tudor flair reminiscent of the residential colleges at Oxford, right down to the oriel bays.  Such Tudor-derived elements continue in the original part of the Law School, by Maginnis and Walsh, and Cushing Hall.

And so I have reached the word limit for this edition.  In our next printing I shall conclude my reflection on South Quad and discuss the lessons it holds for future construction at Notre Dame.

Matthew Balkey is a 4th year architecture student who lives in the incomparable Dillon Hall (when not pulling all-nighters in Bond, that is).  He can be reached by e-mail at