What is the purpose of architecture? Is it merely to facilitate an indoor space for human beings to use? Or, is it only to express grandeur, despite impracticality? Are there buildings that can do both? Of course, you say—there are lots of beautiful, practical buildings. What are some that come to your mind? Keep the radius small, and just think of the Mount’s campus: what buildings come to mind that are both beautiful, and very practical?
My thoughts immediately go to Immaculate Conception Chapel, the Science building (or the COAD, as STEM majors call it), and Bradley. The Delaplaine, Terrace, and even the Library also make the list.
Now, on to the next question: why didn’t the PAC come to mind? Why didn’t the new Welcome Center come to mind? Or the new, gleaming expansion of the Knott Academic Center?
In recent years, Mount Saint Mary’s University has invested extensive time, effort, and money into the expansion of the Academic Center, the PAC, and other new buildings. The students have watched as the new Frederick Health Center was built up across from Powell. The new Welcome Center sits behind the Delaplaine.
The reason these buildings didn’t come to mind when I asked about beautiful practical buildings is because, quite simply, they are not that. They are just buildings. The Mount is suffering from a need to keep up with modern architecture trends, and it is a project that is sorely unwise. For example, the new extension of the AC is a stiff geometric clip-on to the original building that offers no decorum to the exterior. The roof juts upwards surprisingly, as if at the last second; perhaps it is an attempt to provide some “movement” to the many glass rectangles that comprise the walls. Real creativity winces in pain at the sight of it. Right across the sidewalk, so to speak, the PAC stands proudly as another 3D rectangle, with garage-style doors and glaring jumbo-sized televisions on either side.
When I explored the interior of the renovated AC with my friends for the first time, I wanted to be impressed and was excited to see what was new. Walking up to the third floor, however, I felt that its new foyer felt more like an airport terminal than a place I would go to for the sake of itself; for me, it is only a means to get somewhere else. It offers me no invitation to stay awhile; the harsh overhead lights question me as I walk by to my classes, offering me a seat at the striking blue synthetic chairs, and threatens to steal all creativity from me if I stay for too long. Why? Because it has no beauty within it. The interior of the third floor of AC has caved to modern art’s love of abstract, impersonal accent pieces and harsh lighting. The exteriors of these new buildings have not fared much better.
A visitor or onlooker driving on 15 normally encounters t he PAC and the Frederick Health building first, since they are closest to the road. This means that their first impression of the Mount is a lack of vision, and a lack of beauty. They just encounter buildings, and nothing more. If a visitor was to take a walk around campus, he’d have to travel up the hill to truly be inspired. Going up the hill, the visitor meets the COAD, a stately building made of stone. Columns introduce the onlooker to the main entrance of the building, and grand steps to the doors symbolically remind you that in order to embark on a scientific endeavor, you have to be willing to elevate your intellect first. In a single glance, the whole building sends a brief introduction of what it means to engage with science.
Then the visitor encounters Bradley. What a sight! The flags in front, accompanied by the Mount’s iconic sign, don’t allow him to consider the building without a grand announcement of its identity first. And then magnificent stairs, again! These stone stairs invite from both sides and connect halfway up, forming a grand escort up to the veranda. The building is dynamic, impressive, and speaks about its duty as the administrative building. It is a building fit for a President to reside in for his daily duties. The bottom floor’s doors are shielded politely by arched awnings, and accented with chairs not tainted by modern art’s belief that a piece of furniture should look as non-shapely as possible. They still have four legs, arm rests, and long, supportive backs. The modern chair would claim it must look as non-chair like as possible while still being a chair: remove the arms! Do away with half of the legs and let a new, sleek designed feat of engineering support the seat with just two legs! I encountered this same chair on the third floor of AC post-renovation. The need for beautiful architecture arguably applies to furniture, too.
And then, walking past Bradley, the visitor comes to find my home, Terrace. I have lived here for three years, out of request during RA placement. The building design is my favorite out of all the residence buildings, and who can blame me? Four stories tall, consistently made of stone that matches Bradley, the library, IC Chapel, the COAD, and Patriot, the Terrace fits in beautifully. The building is shaped like an L, the longer part of it facing out at the library and the rest of campus. The visitor can walk along the Terrace plaza, stop for a while at the lovely gazebo in-between Terrace and the breathtaking chapel, and then pick from several entrances should he want a tour of the inside. The Dubois entrance has its own sort of lengthy porch, introduced by stairs on both sides up to the second floor of the building, taking away any chance of a static entrance into the building. I love the porch because it doesn’t have to be there. Not many people will “hang out” on the porch, so to speak, or on the little veranda Mac’s side has to offer, but I love it because it adds life to the building. It adds an element of character that modern art would say to take out from the design of the building because it doesn’t “do” anything, practically speaking. But that is the point, isn’t it? Beauty is “practical” for its own sake, not for the sake of utility. Beauty inspires joy and delight; sleek, mechanistic buildings offer no such inspiration. Beauty doesn’t need to prove itself useful through a productivity sheet; all it must do is be delightful to the human being who encounters it. God has created this world beautifully; the work of human hands should reflect His love of beauty as much as it reflects the truth of the goodness of work.
Terrace’s first three floors share in common the many windows of the dorm rooms, but are crowned with a homey grey-roofed fourth floor that playfully boasts of triangles window-tops that are all neighbors to each other. The Bruté section of the building’s windows are deeper-set than Dubois’, telling the onlooker that there isn’t something dreadfully utilitarian about this living space, but rather that each room is, in some small way, its own. Finally, Terrace’s iconic largest triangular statement is in the Dubois section of the about-facing building, fitting in three smaller windows beneath its outline. It is topped by the iconic white cupola, capped with a green dome, and crowned with a golden cross. Does anyone ever use that tower? Not from what I have ever seen! But should we tear it down to give the residence buildings a sleeker, more modern look? Never, I ask the future architects of the Mount—please never tear my beautiful Terrace home down.
All of this is to say, I am no professional architect. As is likely clear from the vocabulary of this article, I don’t actually know much about architecture. But I am a young person who notices when her campus begins to be afflicted by modern art trends. I know that these new designs will not stand the test of time; give it twenty years and the interior of the AC will need to be renovated again so that it feels “fresh.” I see beautiful classical libraries and classrooms of other liberal arts schools and know they will continue on and will be recognizable by alumni even many years later, and cherished by the current students. Young people want beautiful buildings, and we want beautiful interiors to reside in and to work in. I would go work in the Theology Department’s conference room, amidst its red-brown bookshelves and long, deep windows because it inspires me to think higher. I rarely work in the AC classrooms, or in its third-floor airport terminal, unless I absolutely have to, because the drab beige walls, devoid of beautiful art or creativity, offer me no support in my academic pursuits.
Young people notice when a room or building is ugly or when it is beautiful. We do not have to have a degree in architectural studies or classical architecture to be able to recognize when something is missing from the new buildings on campus—and perhaps we cannot articulate our concern and desire for beauty all that well, but here’s to trying. I have hope that the Mount can continue expanding and renovating our campus while striving to match new projects to the cherished designs of Terrace, Bradley and the COAD. We know our mountain home well enough to design buildings and renovations that exemplify her best visual qualities, rather than harshly ask her to leave these comforting designs behind for this decade’s fleeting trends. We want beauty, delight, and joy, even in these campus buildings; so please stop making ugly buildings, young people don’t want them.