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Catholic By Design

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The ND School of Architecture earns high praise for pioneering a return to classicism and urban planning nurtured by a Catholic perspective.

Duncan G. Stroik is a practicing architect, author, and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His award-winning work includes the renovation of the sanctuary of Saint Mary Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is shown above.

NOTRE DAME, IN — The American Conservative recently published the sort of uncommonly laudatory tribute to the Notre Dame School of Architecture that one does not often see about a university unit, and accordingly we are pleased to bring it to your attention.

In this comprehensive examination of the school, Lewis McCrary, the executive editor of the publication, praises the school’s leaders and faculty for pioneering a classicism and as well as a New Urbanism that “draw upon a capacity for human action that is ordered toward the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

McCrary traces the origin of this development to the hiring as department chair in 1989 of “the relatively untested Thomas Gordon Smith.” And rightly so, for under Smith’s leadership Notre Dame became “the first school in the United States to offer a classically based architecture curriculum in fifty years.” Architectural theory and practice, as another author explains, had been monopolized by ‘Modernist and Deconstructionist design that expresses liberation and alienation from the traditional,” so that “this return to Classicism, with its emphasis on order, symmetry, elegance and human scale, [was] considered quite radical.”

McCrary concludes that, while “it remains to be seen whether the movement inaugurated by Notre Dame can affect a full paradigm shift in the world of architecture and urbanism,” it is now an established presence and there are “hopeful signs for the future.” “Most Notre Dame graduates find employment relatively easily,” “academic outposts of classicism” are emerging in other universities (including Catholic University); new research shows that “traditional design promotes human flourishing,” and Notre Dame’s School seems to gain confidence with each passing year.”

From our perspective, the significance of this development is that, as a Catholic school, Notre Dame is a hospitable environment for classicism and the New Urbanism. While “most New Urbanists are secular progressives,” according to Notre Dame’s Philip Bess, they are the poorer for it because of the “relationship between classical architecture and [an] Aristotelian but ultimately Catholic tradition.”

Duncan Stroik, Professor Bess’s estimable colleague, sounds the same theme:

For 25 years, the Notre Dame School of Architecture has been at the forefront of the revival of classical architecture and traditional urbanism in the United States. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is the ideal place for a classical school of architecture. Like Catholicism, classical architecture seeks the good, true, and beautiful; builds on tradition; and is concerned with human dignity. This consistency of philosophy across fields of study sets Notre Dame apart.

McCrary writes:

Amidst all the distinctly American rhetoric about choice and technological advancement, there remains a sense that Notre Dame promotes a set of values that stands in opposition to the still dominant postwar pattern of development.

And:

At a school such as Notre Dame, it helps that the emphasis on place [in the New Urbanism] is reinforced by Catholic teaching on subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest level of association. This is the way that architects trained here tend to practice.

So it is unsurprising that Notre Dame is home to such outstanding Catholic architects, authors, and teachers as Professors Bess and Stroik and founding program chairman Thomas Gordon Smith.

Duncan Stroik is an award-winning specialist in Sacred Catholic Architecture who helped begin the Notre Dame classicism program and founded both the Institute for Sacred Architecture and the Sacred Architecture Journal, which he serves as editor.

And in his profile of Philip Bess, Rod Dreher writes:

You can’t be a conservative or a Christian interested in architecture for long without running into Bess, the prominent Notre Dame architecture professor who advocates New Urbanism from within the Catholic intellectual tradition.

For more on Professor Stroik, including photos of some of his striking work, go here and for an illuminating review of Professor Bess’s signature book Till We Have Built Jerusalem, go here.

Since the relationship between Catholicism and classicism and New Urbanism is one of mutual enrichment rather than dependence, we cannot know how many of the Notre Dame architecture faculty bring a Catholic sensibility to bear upon their work. But what we do know is that faculty like Professors Bess and Stroik and others like them among their colleagues illustrate why the Catholic identity of Notre Dame “depends upon the “continuing presence” of a majority of their counterparts throughout the university, as the school’s Mission Statement declares.

A standard that, we are constrained to add, is no longer met for the university, as we repeatedly emphasize.

Recommended Books

“A Liberalism Safe for Catholicism?: Perspectives from the Review of Politics,” edited by Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science of Notre Dame, and Ryan Anderson (PhD ND ’15), founding editor of Public Discourse, “chronicles the relationship between the Catholic Church and American liberalism as told through twenty-seven essays selected from the Review of Politics. Works by Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, and Yves R. Simon forge the case for the compatibility of Catholicism and American liberal institutions…. The book also covers a wide range of other topics, including democracy, free market economics, the common good, human rights, international politics, and the thought of John Henry Newman, John Courtney Murray, and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as some of the most prominent Catholic thinkers of the last century….”

Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama, by Kenneth L. Woodward (ND ’57), is a pleasure to read for both style and substance. This notable Notre Dame alumnus was the long-time religion editor for Newsweek and “brings his wide experience and deep knowledge of personalities and ideas to bear in this panoramic survey of the interplay of religion and politics over the past six decades. “ Along the way, he provides lively portraits “ of major figures like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Mario Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, Daniel Berrigan, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Richard John Neuhaus. Our subscribers will be especially interested in his illuminating discussion of Mario Cuomo and his talk at Notre Dame that became the bible for pro-choice politicians.


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