Being a visiting critic for student schemes is not something I routinely do. The previous time I did it may well have been in the last century. So it was something of a novelty and to my slight surprise, I really enjoyed it.
Notre Dame pronounced 'Note-a-daime' (to rhyme with 'lame', not 'lamb') has an architectural school, which specialises in classical architecture. It is the only school I know of that does this and it has proved incredibly successful. As a consequence, architectural firms snap up the students. Even people hostile to classical architecture can appreciate that a classical education is of benefit - whatever style you later adopt.
The students are also trained very well, the crits are organised with military precision, each presentation has an allotted time that is stuck to by the minute. The students present their work, as if professional, often dressed smartly. They are applauded at the end and sometimes even shake hands with their critics. This is remote from my experience; I remember crits were people who turned up unwashed, hardly able to talk and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They were often tearful, having stayed up for several nights on the trot.
The schemes are also well drawn up and easy to follow. Again, my experience is of students endlessly changing their designs up until the last minute and drawing them up in a hurry without the time to show a complete scheme. At Notre Dame, it seemed that no one had fallen for the seductive lure of ever perfecting the design. The schemes were frozen well before the crit, allowing a good amount of time to draw up.
What Notre Dame does, very sensibly, is to cater for the everyday. Many architectural schools search for the once in a lifetime genius. Notre Dame does not do this; instead they aim to improve everyone who comes through the door whatever their natural ability. They provide skills that will be useful in the marketplace. This works so well for classical architecture, and allows a fairly ordinary person to produce the most beautiful work despite not being Michelangelo.
I was a little nervous about going to Notre Dame because it is a Catholic university. I struggle with the idea of faith schools and I felt perhaps the religious aspect would get on my nerves, but what I found was the Catholicism, though undoubtedly present, was not in any way oppressive. Such Catholics that I met were incredibly warm, friendly and good humoured, which in fact chimes with my experience of Americans generally.
One such Catholic was Duncan Stroik, who designs the most beautiful churches in a classical style. He has an exquisite eye for detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of classical architecture, which makes him, in my opinion, the best designer of churches working in the world today. He very kindly took the time to show me around his office and I saw some of the excellent work on his boards. It turns out that we narrowly missed working with each other because we both were employed by Allan Greenberg in Washington DC. We hence had a few mutual friends like Stephen Chrisman, Morgan Conolly and Thomas Noble. We had a good chat about architecture generally, including the Scamozzi ionics - a subject with a limited audience and therefore always great to meet someone who is as interested in the subject as me. Incidentally, if you are of that rare breed, you may be interested in this.
Coincidentally lots of fellow Brits were in town as well. One night I had supper with the architect John Simpson and his collaborator, the sculptor Sandy Stoddard, who is a fascinating character. He does not do small talk, if you want to discuss pros and cons of going clockwise or anti-clockwise round the M25 he might not be able to offer much, but if you want an engaging and humorous discussion of Plato and Aristotle, which I often do, then he's definitely your man.
Also passing through was my friend Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder and director of Create Streets. Though he has not been to America for years, and I have never been to Notre Dame, we found ourselves in the same place at the same time by pure coincidence.
Before I flew out I really wondered why I was effectively taking a week out of my hectic schedule to go on this venture. But having been, I feel it was incredibly worthwhile. Travelling is so enriching and it is always stimulating to meet new people. Teaching which is something I have always avoided is, in fact, a great way to stay fresh and pick up new ideas. As architects we never stop learning, an inexperienced student can point you in a direction which hitherto, you had never considered. Through chatting with students and looking at their work, I picked up some great ideas. These ideas are so good that, like my chocolate making ancestors, I am going to keep these secrets to myself.