May 14, 2012; Duncan Stroik. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

Duncan Stroik, the designer behind Christ Chapel, visited campus last Thursday. We sat down with the architect for a con­ver­sation on the chapel, on archi­tecture, and on his inspi­ration.  

Stroik, a second-gen­er­ation architect, trans­lated his  childhood of vis­iting his­toric and modern buildings into a career in archi­tecture, which he studied at the Uni­versity of Vir­ginia and Yale.

What do you enjoy designing, gen­erally?

One of my favorite things is to design buildings for stu­dents. To work on a college campus is so exciting for me, because American cam­puses are unique in the world. You could say it’s a dream come true to work on a college campus so close to where I live.

What spe­cific buildings do you like to do?

To do a chapel, which is my favorite building because it’s sacred.

What do you appre­ciate about Hillsdale?

The people and the stu­dents and the faculty and the admin­is­tration —  they’re so amazing to work with and learn from. I like learning from people who are smarter than me, which is why I love Hillsdale.

What did the Uni­versity of Vir­ginia expose you to in terms of style and inspi­ration?

My best teacher was Thomas Jef­ferson. The more I studied that guy and his buildings, the more inspired I was. I left UVA thinking that he was the best architect there ever was.

UVA is a beau­tiful campus, which Jef­ferson called an “aca­d­e­mical village.” It was really inspiring archi­tecture.

You said Jef­ferson described Italian architect Andrea Pal­ladio as an “archi­tecture Bible.” What did you learn about these great archi­tects?

These guys had a bib­li­og­raphy. They weren’t inventing stuff out of thin air, they weren’t building things that would vanish, they were doing some­thing timeless. That’s hard to do, but you can succeed by studying the great masters.

What is clas­sical about clas­sical archi­tecture?

That’s a $600,000 question. On the one hand, we think of clas­sical relating to antiquity and tra­dition as the “democracy of the dead.” Clas­sicism applies stan­dards of excel­lence and time­lessness. The great thing about clas­sicism in art is that it is a living con­ver­sation. It allows us to incor­porate who we are into some­thing excellent. We’re going to end up doing things dif­fer­ently than Jef­ferson did at UVA.

What is the purpose of archi­tecture?

There is a basic need humans have called shelter. We have a second need called com­munity. One way to under­stand archi­tecture is in meeting these needs. This creates the pos­si­bility for not just shelter, but some­thing higher. Buildings or shelter fulfill basic needs, but archi­tecture ful­fills aes­thetic and spir­itual needs. Archi­tecture should ennoble people.

In this case, we’re trying to raise people up in their voca­tions as stu­dents and faculty. We want to make people’s time at the College even more good, even more true, and even more beau­tiful.

Do you have a favorite building?

I really love the lawn at UVA where he turned the Pan­theon into a library and temples into faculty apart­ments. It’s the closest thing we have in America to a Roman Forum.

What are the uni­fying prin­ciples of Hillsdale College’s archi­tecture, and how does the chapel adhere to them?

The building we focus on is Central Hall — Ital­ianate or French Second Empire. It’s a building of its time that’s very American.

We want to make the back quad­rangle even more beau­tiful — some­thing like a cross between a Southern European piazza and a New England town green. It’s an ‘outdoor room’ created by mul­tiple buildings.

We were very inter­ested in reflecting Hillsdale’s mission in the building — pro­moting the best in the American exper­iment. A lot of the design was inspired by Wash­ington, D.C., for that reason.

I don’t want one tower facing another, I wanted to respect Central Hall and Hillsdale’s tra­dition. So, we decided on two smaller towers.

From what other examples does the chapel draw inspi­ration?

It’s less Puritan than the New England meet­ing­house, but it’s still very American. It’s a place of study and inspi­ration. The entrance to the Chapel is inspired by the Jef­ferson Memorial and other “cir­cular temples.”

What do you hope stu­dents take away from this project?

This was a chal­lenge unlike any­thing I’ve ever done. I hope it’s inspiring for stu­dents.