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.