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Golden Age of Classicism

Notre Dame’s architecture school is rebuilding the traditional city.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—A year and a half hence, about the time the leafy Notre Dame campus begins to display brilliant autumn hues, budding architects and their mentors will move into a new building near the ceremonial entrance to the sprawling university. Though it will be the newest addition to this 175-year-old institution, built atop a former parking lot, the classically inspired edifice will appear to passersby as if it has been there for generations. Its physical form will symbolize what this unique school aims to bring to our built environment—classical tradition, respect for cultural heritage, and authentically sustainable and beautiful places.

To be dedicated as the Walsh Family Hall, the building will be a living monument to a movement in architecture and urban planning that was planted here almost three decades ago. Presented as a series of interconnected buildings arranged around a central plaza, the small campus within a campus designed by British architect John Simpson would look right at home in the Old World splendor of Oxford or Cambridge. There’s a chapel-like Hall of Casts that will be used to present student designs, as well as Notre Dame’s extensive collection of architectural ornament and statuary. Outside, a tower presides over what is less an Anglo-American quadrangle than a continental piazza, a feature that will no doubt console students returning to the Midwest from the school’s required year abroad in Rome.

From the standpoint of architectural critics—at least those fancying themselves in the avant garde—this wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. The last time Notre Dame dedicated new classrooms for architecture, in the 1960s, Pietro Belluschi, one of the inventors of the glass-box office tower, had been on hand to offer his blessing at a school that once welcomed the most progressive architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright. But then in 1989, that fateful year when some erroneously declared an “end of history,” the university hired the relatively untested Thomas Gordon Smith to be the new chair of its architecture program. Once described by the New York Times as a “young old fogey,” Smith was a committed classicist, and immediately began to shake up what had heretofore been a place that—like most contemporary schools of architecture—had little room for traditional building design. Architectural history had reasserted itself at Notre Dame.

Smith quickly brought in several new faculty to help him transform the curriculum. Having no living model for such a school, and trained in the reigning modernist orthodoxy, Smith and his new deputies created something entirely new by recovering a lost world. While the centuries-old classical approach of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts had once been the gold standard, by the late 20th century the tradition was essentially extinct.

“All the people here are autodidacts,” architects variously “disenchanted with the modern world’s built environment,” explains Dean Michael Lykoudis, an early Smith recruit who now heads the school. The new classicists were initially regarded by their academic peers as at best interesting curiosities, at worst annoying cranks. Shortly after Smith’s changes to the curriculum, a visiting accreditation board remarked in its report that “it remains to be seen whether the classical experiment in the school of architecture will blossom into a full-blown branch or remain a quirky twig.”

Lykoudis recalls that he and other new faculty of the early 1990s faced resistance from students as well. They quickly realized that “teaching classicism by teaching columns first was not the way to do it.” They had to understand the traditional building blocks as parts of a whole—the city—and recognize that good architecture and good urbanism go hand in hand.


Making the case to new disciples required going beyond slideshows, maps, and textbooks. It meant bringing students—most of whom had grown up in dull postwar suburbs—to an example of a vibrant urban place. The faculty naturally preferred to find one with classical bones. “Urbanism, until very recently, has not always been seen in America as a good thing,” explains Lykoudis. “But Rome is such a positive place … The sensory experience of space—noise, taste, smell—turns students on to cities.”

Thanks to the foresight and gumption of a previous department chair, who in the 1960s purchased a building near the Pantheon—and according to legend only told university officials about it after signing the papers—Notre Dame architecture students had been studying in Rome for decades. But the new classical regime made the Italian capital a mandatory destination for third-year students in what is already an intensive five-year undergraduate program.

In the eternal city, students are encouraged to put down their cameras and smartphones, get out their sketchbooks, and through direct observation focus on understanding the qualities of the city that are difficult to quantify. So much “decision making in the modern world is about tabulation,” laments Lykoudis, while understanding what creates really timeless, beautiful places like the piazzas of Rome requires something more—what he sums up as “becoming cultured” or, less snobbishly, “knowing stuff.”

Thus what is perceived by some outsiders as an anti-technological posture—students don’t touch computer-aided drafting software until at least their fourth year, after they return from Europe—is ultimately aimed at creating a sense of humility in people who will be shaping our built environment for decades to come. Cultivating this sense of virtue and care for place requires more than technical skills and training in the use of particular tools. It is about contemplation. “Classicism is an architecture which is built on the idea of rest … it’s not in tension” with the environment around it, argues Lykoudis. “Some people might argue that’s why it has this sense of tranquility.”


Its underlying humility imbues the school with a posture that is neither ideologically progressive nor reactionary. Rather it is formed by something resembling practical wisdom as defined by Aristotle—a capacity for human action that is ordered toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. The relationship between classical architecture and this Aristotelian but ultimately Catholic tradition has been articulated by Notre Dame professor Philip Bess in his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem. As Rod Dreher explained in a 2014 American Conservative profile of Bess, he “concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are ‘implicitly Aristotelian,’ because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.”

This classical but prudent approach, it turns out, is remarkably well-suited to addressing the challenges of the contemporary world. “There’s an ecological perspective in why we pursue our craft….Classicism is about conservation and investment rather than consumption and waste,” says Lykoudis. The prevailing approach to environmentally sensitive architecture and urban design relies heavily on technology-driven and often expensive solutions, with the LEED certification of the U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval sought by most of today’s most high-profile building projects. But Notre Dame professors argue that authentic sustainability comes primarily from paying attention to the form of the building and materials used. Today’s standard-issue office buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, for example, may perform well in computer models. But often these sleek structures have a shorter lifespan and thus are ultimately more costly than traditional buildings, which have operable windows that allow for natural ventilation in milder weather.

Despite the reluctance to let students rely too much on technology during their initial formation, there is an emphasis among faculty on using advanced research methods to make the case for a classical and human-scaled approach to architecture. Some are creating databases offering performance information about a greater variety of traditional building materials than are typically used by modern buildings. Others systematically study the deleterious effect on human health wrought by inhumane architecture and neighborhood design. Another project uses digital 3D mapping to measure World Heritage Sites, enhancing historic preservation efforts. Dennis Doordan, associate dean for research, describes this nod to the scientific method as “expanding our arsenal to be able to engage in the discourse….We live in a world where some of the decision makers are not swayed by eloquence, but they are swayed by numbers.”

The most important number for many is the bottom line cost, and Notre Dame professors aren’t shy about confronting this issue head on. After the 2008 housing crash, much of the large-scale New Urbanist development was put on hold, but of course some individuals still wanted to build new homes of the kind often found in neotraditional communities. The 6,000-square-foot McMansion on a one-acre parcel was decidedly out of fashion. Professor Marianne Cusato saw the collapse of the market as an opportunity to adapt traditional design principles to the emerging demand for smaller, more flexible living spaces.

The New Economy Home

Cusato’s “New Economy Home” made plans available for a two-story, 1,771 square foot, four-bedroom house that can fit on a compact lot compatible with a walkable cityscape. Its simple but attractive style is reminiscent of the Cape Cod and American Foursquare traditions, and features front and back porches. By using standard-sized lumber and other materials, Cusato estimates that these homes can be built for around $200,000, excluding land costs. But beyond their affordability and traditional design, the home’s primary appeal is the adaptability of its floor plan. The rear of the house contains a small suite with its own outside entrance that can be used as a rental unit, in-law apartment, first-floor bedroom for a senior or disabled family member, or simply extra living space.

“We used to build this way,” says Cusato, arguing that her plan is less a new innovation than a restoration of an older way of thinking. She reports that there are already streets with several of these homes in the same block, each featuring different living arrangements, ranging from young families to single retired people. The home is thus designed so that its owners can remain in it throughout the various stages of life, avoiding the need to “trade up” or “downsize” in response to changing family and financial circumstances over the years.

Responding to the critique that repeating such a plan in a new development is “cookie-cutter,” Cusato suggests that such variations on a theme often create really vibrant, high-value neighborhoods. “There’s nothing wrong with repeating a house….All of the great cities … Georgetown, the West Village, San Francisco [have] the same house down the whole street.” Cusato is quick to point out that she is not advocating outlawing sprawling postwar subdivisions. “I’m not saying don’t live in a McMansion—if it fits your lifestyle and is where you want to be, go for it. But so many people are forced into that.” She and other New Urbanists simply argue that developers—and their architects—would benefit from opening up new markets by catering to many people who want to live in places guided by traditional, authentically sustainable patterns of building.


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. Behind the beautiful drawings of arches and architraves that line the halls here, the principle that seems to animate everyone—faculty and alumni alike—is that place matters. It might first sound to some like an easy cliché, a truism, but this pithy formulation is what guides and brings together new classicists and New Urbanists.

As Dean Lykoudis explains, faculty try to emphasize to students “how important being committed to a place is. The idea of the individual searching for his or her perfect happiness outside of community is kind of a red herring.” For architects, this means designing buildings that respect their surroundings and community, including their future inhabitants. In contrast, near-celebrity “starchitects,” with their abstract forms that seem the epitome of self-expression, appear to disregard this imperative.

At a school such as Notre Dame, it helps that the emphasis on place is reinforced by Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest practical level of association. This principle is built into the way that architects trained here tend to practice, often holding workshops known as charrettes, in which community members are invited to take part in the planning of a new development. (The term fittingly comes out of French Beaux-Arts tradition, in which a “little cart” was wheeled around a drafting room to collect ideas.)

In recent years, Notre Dame has attempted to live out this commitment to localism by engaging with the citizens of South Bend, home to the university but long disconnected from its civic life. Like many other small Rust Belt cities caught in postindustrial decline, South Bend’s downtown had become hollowed out, a place where, with all the growth happening in neighboring towns, nobody wanted to be anymore. “It was tearing itself down,” says Dean Lykoudis. The school of architecture brought students to work downtown, while encouraging the city to draw on its heritage to reimagine its core as a vibrant place. South Bend, Lykoudis argues, should not try to be “world class,” seeking along with many other struggling places its own starchitect-designed signature concert hall or museum, but should instead focus on preserving and sometimes re-creating buildings that showcase its unique Midwestern identity.

Another manifestation of this turn away from the universal zeitgeist and toward an approach that allows communities to be themselves is found in the school’s role in restoring churches to their traditional form. After the Vatican II council in the 1960s upended millennia of liturgical tradition, newly constructed Catholic churches lost most of the classical design elements that served to reinforce their place in Western civilization. Some thought it impossible to ever again build sacred spaces with the kind of symmetry and ornament that had defined them for centuries. Then came architects such as Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik, who has shown that classically-proportioned churches can still be built in places as diverse as New York City, southern California, and South Carolina.

Of course such restorative work might be less necessary today if more of the past hadn’t been destroyed by bulldozers, most notably by misguided 1950s and 1960s city planners driven by “urban renewal.” Professor Steven Semes, who leads the school’s historic-preservation program, argues that unless we respect heritage, communities can lose their sense of identity. When altering or adding to historic fabric, he argues, architects must ask “What does the place want you to do … so that it stays that place?” Catholic social thought not only demands solidarity with the wider world but also a respect for the past and the future, especially when the next generation yet to be born cannot advocate for preserving its patrimony. In addition to saving buildings themselves, says Semes, there also is the overlooked “intangible heritage”—the skills and craftsmanship that go into traditional building, what the school seeks to preserve by educating students in the classical tradition.


For almost three decades, the architects of Notre Dame have toiled away at their mission of giving new life to an intellectual tradition that was once dismissed as sentimental nostalgia. It has surely grown beyond that predicted “quirky twig,” with classicism reinvigorating what Lykoudis says was formerly considered “a kind of backwater program.” But it remains to be seen whether this movement can affect a full paradigm shift in the world of architecture and urbanism—or whether it will remain merely a monastic endeavor, maintaining ancient knowledge and bringing light to dark ages.

Certainly there are hopeful signs, perhaps most notably in the fact that most Notre Dame architecture graduates find employment relatively easily. And new scientific research is making it hard for progressives to deny that traditional design promotes human flourishing. Other academic outposts of classicism are emerging in places such as the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver; and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Some fellow travelers in this movement, notably the provocative intellectual James Howard Kunstler, predict that a future societal cataclysm, possibly environmental in nature, will jolt us back toward classicism and away from the dominant development patterns of sprawl and the formlessness of techno-optimistic modernism. Others, seemingly anticipating an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, argue that modernism is intellectually bankrupt, with even most modern architects eschewing cutting-edge buildings to live in traditional townhouses and apartments.

But a few are convinced the moment is already here. Professor Douglas Duany avers that Notre Dame has entered a “golden age,” although the most prominent evangelists of classicism and New Urbanism may not realize it yet. Some of his long-embattled colleagues may demur on that point, but the institution built by the visionary Thomas Gordon Smith and his colleagues seems to gain confidence with each passing year. As Duany argues, “Why should architecture shut down the past? … The ‘future’ keeps on failing.”

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was made possible with support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.



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