Neo-gothic motifs present in the historic buildings of Notre Dame have been the focus of my prior articles. The informed use of these details has contributed to a campus in harmony with the ideals of an academic and athletic community. By no means, however, is neo-gothic the only style suited to our endeavor. The core buildings of God Quad exhibit a broad range of neo-classical, French Second Empire, and Italianate Victorian designs. This was fertile ground, indeed, for such alumni as John Bellairs, one of my favorite childhood authors. The romantic vision of “Barnavelt’s Folly” from his The House with a Clock in its Walls could easily stand in the place of Sorin College, or Washington Hall. Unsurprisingly, these buildings have a way of immersing themselves in campus lore, particularly through ever-popular ghost stories.
It is particularly galling to me that the recent spate of construction has been solely within the quasi-gothic idiom. Individually, these buildings are good, but throwing them up en masse without the counterpoint of other styles risks monotony. Indeed, the campus master plan specifically states that “New buildings will be designed in the style directly representational of existing campus traditional architecture, including Collegiate Gothic, Neoclassical, and French Empire.” Athough this marks a dramatic turnaround from the normative building program from the Fifties to the early Nineties, the execution to date has fallen short of the envisioned outcome. Further strides are needed before we can claim a full rebirth.
We may yet witness the fruition of this institutional policy, as the new home for the ACE program adjacent to Brownson Hall is designed to be sympathetic to Notre Dame’s French Quarter. I intend to devote an entire article to this building once it reaches substantial completion. Another encouraging sign is that the university and her contractors seem to be progressing along a learning-curve with each new building in regard to the traditional styles. The details of the latest law school addition, for example, are far more convincing than those of Coleman Morse, to say nothing of the 1984 wing of the law school.
How did we get so far from this building tradition in the first place? Here is my condensed, architectural history of the Western world: From the earliest times, buildings were built from whatever was on hand: stone, timber, mud, etc. One of the major theoretical explanations of classical architecture traces back to the idea of a ‘rustic hut,’ from which all other built forms derive. These became ritualized, ornamented, and increasingly refined to suit the ever-expanding functional needs of human society.
Each age improved upon the former: Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman. Major developments were few, but of enormous impact. In the words of 20th-century architect Louis Kahn, “Imagine that momentous event in architecture, when the wall parted and the column became.” Besides the post-and-lintel, the arch and vault formed the fundamentals of space composition for millennia. As recently as 150 years ago, Fr. Sorin led a group of brothers in manufacturing bricks from the mud of our lakes and piling them into buildings in traditional fashion.
While the Holy Cross was here building up its universities, the industrial revolution had already begun to transform the way people built. New materials emerged, allowing for extraordinary feats of engineering. The resulting structural gymnastics soon went from novelty to necessary as inhuman conditions encroached upon former urban and agrarian environs. In the aftermath of World War I, Europeans sought to banish the shadows of the past with a new, machine-inspired architecture. By eliminating all classicist, and hence classist, elements, they created the framework for a “New Architecture.”
Ironically, the chief proponents thereof were forced into the United States by the Second World War. In the economic expansion and general prosperity which followed, this International Style was quickly adopted by capitalists and developers for its mechanized, streamlined constructability and soulless maximization of rentable space. By the 1950s, the entire construction process was caught in a sea change, and Notre Dame was no exception.
Though we did not have the intent to clash overtly with the prevailing architecture, we could not avoid the modern aesthetic because we built in a modern technique. Dorms such as Fisher, Pangborn, Stanford and Keenan, share a brick palette and a few stone corners, but the effect is undeniably modern. The result is a temporal expression which, unlike the Art Deco fusions of the previous generation, does not lend itself to accommodating the overarching ideal. The buildings are indifferent in the way they engage the campus as an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual reality. There is a conspicuous reserve among the buildings of this period which, as we shall see, later work desperately struggles to avoid.
Matthew Balkey is a 4th year architecture major. He anticipates a deluge of vitriol from the good residents of the aforementioned dorms. For those so inclined, he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Only tirades with flawless grammar shall merit personal reply.