Preservation at Notre Dame

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Rendering of new architecture campus by British architect John Simpson. (Notre Dame)

The University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture has offered a concentration in preservation since 2007, but last academic year (2016-17) it offered for the first time a masters program in historic preservation. The new program is led by the former director of the school’s Rome Studies Program, Steven Semes, and, most excellently, is based on his masterwork, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation.

This book is one of my bibles, and it is gratifying to see allusions to it – reasonably direct allusions, I must add – in his masters program’s mission statement:

The program emphasizes respect for continuities in architectural language and building culture as the basis for informed conservation of historic settings and the design of harmonious new ones.

After noting that almost half of the billings at architecture firms are for preservation projects, and that for many decades the trend has been, and continues to be, that “new construction in historic settings must distinguish itself by stylistic or material contrast,” the program’s statement of rationale adds:

The field has recently been energized by new perspectives that view the relationship between heritage resources and the contemporary built environment in terms of continuity rather than contrast, and subject to a conservation ethic in which architecture, urbanism, and historic preservation are collaborative specializations rather than autonomous disciplines.

That may be a “new perspective” but it has nonetheless been held, consciously or intuitively, by most people in cities and towns in America, Europe and wherever a society’s culture has come under attack by modern architecture, which is almost the entire world. That it can come across as a new perspective merely highlights the extent to which hundreds of years of practice in architecture have been frogmarched out of the picture by the modernists.

It is the beauty of Semes’s book, of his new preservation program, and of Notre Dame’s architecture program as a whole that they recognize that the time has come to resist.

True, even today, resistance may not want to challenge the reigning orthodoxy directly. The newest traditional curriculum in architecture education – at University Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, Italy – has a mission statement that avoids any mention of the phenomenon that it would confront in any effort to restore beauty to architecture or its educational principles. Also out with a new traditional curriculum is the College of Charleston, where the preferred nomenclature is “progressive traditional.” Likewise, the new concentration in classical architecture and urbanism at Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. Likewise, for that matter, Notre Dame’s graduate preservation program, whose statement of rationale alludes to what its graduates will be up against only in noting that alternative preservation programs include many with a concentration in the “conservation of Modern architecture.”

Fair enough. Classical and traditional architecture speak for themselves in a language almost everybody understands quite well. Furthermore, a program of preservation that emphasizes the preservation of historic settings as well as the historic buildings that are within will naturally recognize that new architecture in traditional styles is intrinsic to the propagation of historic districts – and to the salvation, more broadly, of the built environment of cities and towns whether they are blessed with historic districts or not.

So tiptoe through the tulips if you must, but please do bring this wisdom back into the world of architecture education, where it is so sadly lacking in most places. In doing so, Notre Dame does the world a greater service than it may realize.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Preservation at Notre Dame

  1. John Borden says:

    I wonder, what is the path forward for schools that are staunchly secular? (I notice a common trend among schools that have an explicit appreciation of traditional architecture: they are in some way religiously affiliated). I attend Drexel University and they are so steeped in the postmodern dogma that it seems like they don’t know which way is up. We waste so much time focusing on innovation–and with a complete dismissal (and perhaps disgust) of imitation. I’ve not yet heard the word ‘beauty’ or any significant discussion of normal human beings and the kind of buildings we all actually LIKE to be in.

    Drexel is a very grounded and practical school (especially compared to the other schools within a 5 block radius, say). I don’t want to make it sound like the curriculum is postmodern and esoteric beyond reach. Maybe they will even be among the first ‘staunchly secular’ schools to make a switch to a noticeable respect for traditional and classical architecture. But man, it’s hard to visualize the path forward for them.

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    • Yes, John, I’ve noticed that, too, and have not really been eager to comment on it. I don’t believe classicism requires religiosity, but it is certainly true that religiosity puts you in a frame of mind that is skeptical of postmodern esoterica, especially in something as visual and emotional as architecture. Good luck to Drexel, but don’t hold your breath!

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      • John Borden says:

        I, for one, would be interested in your thoughts on this topic. I’ve heard it said that there are certain complexities in human beings (profound suffering for example) where religious language is the only tool sufficient enough to describe it. It might be the same for beauty. I’m sure there are many reasons that religiosity would put you in a frame of mind that is skeptical of postmodernism. And does it also provide greater access to classicism and beauty? This is all way beyond me, but I stumbled on Architects and Mimetic Rivalry, by Rene Girard and Leon Krier, et al. this week which has had me thinking.

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        • John, you’re asking me for think far above my pay grade. I am not religious, but unlike many who are not, I respect religion and belief, and their role in society and potential for good – I am merely incapable of it myself. I am far from able to judge whether religion provides greater access to classicism and beauty. So many institutions have abandoned all pretext of deep and considered judgment in any subject that the religious mind probably is indeed more capable than others of understanding classicism and beauty. The book’s title sounds fascinating.

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  2. Pingback: N.D. grad’s Rome restoration | Architecture Here and There

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