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May 18, 2008

Notre Dame Gothic

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Last fall I wrote about how the University of Washington dealt with the problem of Collegiate Gothic in the modernist era. My review was mixed.

Yesterday I was in South Bend, Indiana and finally broke the inertia of driving south on the main drag to check out the Notre Dame University campus. It happened to be graduation day, but we were able to find parking and walked from the lot to the golden dome and back. Here are some of the buildings I saw:


Yep, this seems to be the right place. Our Lady is to the left, and the dome to the right. Let's start at the dome and work back.

This is the Main Building with the dome on top. It's the center of the campus and likely one of the first buildings built. Most colleges start small, with an Old Main or somesuch that initially housed everything. Here, the Main Building sets the campus tone in terms of brickwork (though it's slightly more yellow), if not in architecture. Some of the nearby buildings -- also a century or more old -- are Romanesque in flavor. Then the shift was made to a simplified Collegiate Gothic. I'll leave it to Notre Dame savvy readers to tell us when these were built.

If I correlated correctly with my campus map, this is Alumni Hall. Note the color of the bricks and the green-gray slate roof: these are examples of the two main unifying elements.

Not all is traditional. This is the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. It's Post-Modern in that it acknowledges its architectural environment. Could be better, could be worse than it is.

The Center For Continuing Education is stark. So are many other buildings that are, unlike this one, away from the Notre Dame Avenue axis. Coloration ties it to the rest of campus, but it's out of place nevertheless, given its location.

New construction just off the axis, and it looks like it will have a Gothic theme of sorts.

Across Notre Dame Avenue from the Hesburgh is the Alumni Association Building which is simplified Collegiate Gothic. Behind it is the bookstore which contains the largest "logo" shop I've ever seen on a college campus. Apparently Notre Dame, besides having "subway alumni" also has "Boeing alumni." [Translation: In the glory days of Irish football, ND had lots of Catholic fans who never attended college. By "Boeing," I refer to the ease of transportation allowing alums and others to get to South Bend and scoop up sweatshirts, baseball caps, beer mugs, et cetera.]

Finally, near the main entrance to campus is the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, a massive building that does a nice job of maintaining the architectural theme despite its bulk.

Notre Dame strikes me as being far more successful than the University of Washington in maintaining a unified campus "look." Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the Fighting Irish have a School of Architecture that favors traditional over modernist styles. As best as I can tell, the school has to fight harder than the football team to survive in a hostile environment.



posted by Donald at May 18, 2008


You'd think a college campus would be the one place where it would be a positive NOT to be with-it. So, at Notre Dame, if they started out with a yellow bricked, stripe roofed, sort of romanesque building, why not replicate that structure - not modernist variations on it, but that exact building mode (in bigger, smaller, shorter, taller versions of course) down to the details - throughout the campus. It would give uniformity, the place would have "a look," not be a hodgepodge. And there would be a comforting, maybe even strengthening, connection to the past. Why should an academic setting be up to date? Isn't the whole point of the academy that it be timeless, not under the sway of passing fads? Idealistic I suppose and somewhat naive, but where else are the young going to escape the tyranny of now?

Posted by: ricpic on May 18, 2008 9:11 PM

Thanks for the tour. I like your judgement -- "could be better, could be worse." I'm with Ricpic in terms of general reflections. I wonder if the presence of the traditionalist School of Architecture is having much impact on the university in terms of its plans for its physical plant. That Cont. Ed. building is a real shame. I hope administrators know that that was a mistake not to be repeated.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 18, 2008 11:32 PM

Yes, as an ND alumni, I agree with your assessment of the campus.

ND is a conservative place. And that translates to the architecture of the campus.

Historically, ND grew popular as a rural oasis to the urban, catholic populated cities of Chicago, New York, Philly, and Baltimore.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that the university promotes its campus as a contrast to the urban centers of its alumni supporters.

Posted by: thehova on May 19, 2008 12:25 AM

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