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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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Four years bring five (architecturally mediocre) buildings

This University is on a mad building spree. It basically always has been, ever since that fateful day in 1842 when Fr. Sorin laid the first log of his chapel. The last four years are no exception: construction crews scurry around like worker ants; the din wakes people up in the mornings; and everywhere you look, they’re putting up a new piece of yellow brick neotraditional architecture.

Since the class of 2024’s first day of class, Notre Dame has erected five new buildings — two which break new ground and three in place of an old one — as well as spearheading countless renovations. Just like how every man, even if he hasn’t touched a bat since elementary school tee ball, thinks he could manage an MLB team, I think I could design a dorm. Men feel entitled to kvetch about sports, and I feel entitled to judge buildings. My career never made it past sand castles, pillow forts and Minecraft houses, but I spend 99% of my time in and around buildings — that’s architectural expertise, no? So here’s my review of the last four years’ new buildings.

Corby Hall

I’m sure that if you live in Corby Hall — i.e. if you’re a CSC — its total demolition and reconstruction probably brought welcome quality of life improvements. Corby now boasts an underground garage, a fancy dining room, new bike storage, better laundry facilities, porches and patios.

But I’m not a priest, and I don’t live in Corby, so I can say that I miss the old one. It posed challenges — it was built before electricity and indoor plumbing, after all — but it had a formal coherence and elegance which the new one lacks. They really don’t make windows like they used to.

Remick Family Hall

Brownson Hall was Notre Dame’s second oldest building, beaten only by Old College. But unlike Old College — which was clearly built out of necessity when this state was still a frontier — Brownson was fairly delicate and attractive. It featured those signature tall, slender windows with low segmental arches that you see all over God Quad, and its walls were covered in ivy. Like Lyons and Howard Halls, Brownson also boasted a walk-through arch.

It’s not so much that I dislike the architecture of Remick Family Hall — and hey, I love the free coffee in there — it’s just that I miss the architecture of the building that was razed to make room for it.

McKenna Hall

The new McKenna Hall, which replaced an older mid-century modern building of the same name, belongs to a genre of vernacular architecture endemic to Notre Dame — one that’s 50% St. Ed’s and 50% McMansion. It haphazardly mixes together every single architectural trope to be found on campus, tossing in North Quad-style dormers with a slate roof alongside gothic arches plus a castle tower like the one Alumni has.

Raclin Murphy Museum of Art

I hated you, Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, but you’re growing on me. In my defense, the bizarre neoclassical neighborhood you form with the architecture school in the middle of that vast expanse of parking lots is one of the most dystopian sights at this school, especially when viewed on a cold overcast day.

Still, you’re coming into your own. Sculptures are starting to populate your sculpture garden, and the garden part of it is finally starting to grow lush and green. While walking past McKenna Hall makes me feel like I’m in a Cheesecake Factory and makes me feel cheap, walking past you — with your weighty Grecian forms — makes me feel dignified.

Johnson Family Hall

When Notre Dame filed an architectural application for the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, we prided ourselves on our “decorative elements on the exterior [which] evoke the flamboyant tradition of mid-19th century eclecticism.” The buildings which bear that torch, the torch of flamboyant eclecticism, are not the hotel-style dorms like Johnson Family Hall — it’s the whimsical, postmodern dorms on West Quad like Keough and O’Neill.

Architecturally, J-Fam is lying to itself.  It’s a modern dorm pretending it’s a vintage one — wearing its skin “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”-style. Frankly, it’s dishonest.

It’s been four year, and Notre Dame is yet to hit an architectural grand slam; so far it's just fouls and strikes. Still, there’s a lot of construction currently in progress, and there’s a lot of completion dates on the horizon. Maybe Notre Dame’s next masterpiece is around the corner.

Great walls and aqueducts, beautiful temples and gardens — that’s how emperors used to make their mark, by building. Hopefully Fr. Dowd is a better builder than his predecessor.