Benedictine College’s Classical Architecture Program Builds Toward a Beautiful Future
The Catholic college established the four-year bachelor of arts major in 2016.
John Haigh, director of the architecture program at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, doesn’t want his students to build only for today, or even for tomorrow. He wants their work to point to forever. “We’re not going to build Utopia or the heavenly Jerusalem right here and now,” he told the Register, “but our students can use their training to point to the idea that with God there will be an ultimate happiness.”
Started in 2016, the four-year preprofessional Bachelor of Arts in Architecture program at Benedictine College has one goal in mind: to build the kind of beauty that will catch the eye and save the world.
The program seeks to inculcate its students in three transcendents — truth, goodness and beauty (and with a special emphasis on the last of these) through formal training in the classical architectural tradition coupled with and bolstered by Benedictine’s long-standing commitment to the Great Books of Western civilization offered to students through its liberal arts curriculum. Already, the architecture program has graduated a handful of students, and, according to Haigh, over the past six years, the program has been growing slowly but steadily — along with its reputation. The 2021-2022 school year will be welcoming three seniors, 10 juniors, 13 sophomores and 30 freshmen enrolled in the program.
“You can see that the base of the pyramid is starting to grow,” Haigh said. “For us, these numbers are unprecedented.”
While Haigh is currently the only architecture professor on staff, Benedictine has already hired an additional faculty member for the coming school year, and professors in the art and engineering department also support the program through classes offered to students as part of Benedictine’s core curriculum. There’s even some talk at the college about providing the program its own building at some time in the future, Haigh said.
To add further heft to their program, the school also relies on Denis McNamara, director of Benedictine’s recently founded Center for Beauty and Culture, who helps provide a theological and historical foundation for architecture students.
“I’m not officially associated with the department, but I teach courses that are supportive, including ‘Liturgical Art and Architecture’ and ‘Sacramental Aesthetics,’” McNamara told the Register. “I’m also academically a specialist in classical architecture theory and the new classical movement of the buildings being built today.”
Benedictine is the latest Catholic school of higher learning to join the small team of Catholic institutions around the country offering formal classical architectural training, including stand-out university programs at the University of Notre Dame and The Catholic University of America. But Benedictine is the only Catholic liberal arts college in the country providing this training.
According to Haigh, there’s a reason Catholic institutions are in the vanguard of the classical revival.
“Catholics have 2,000 years of teachings at our hands of which we are stewards,” he said. “We are to preserve that by studying our catechism, reading our Scripture, holding fast to our traditions and passing those on. So, it’s rather natural for us to say the entire scope of architectural history is at our hands.”
Benedictine’s liberal arts program encompasses the broad framework of Western thought in its curriculum, drawing from the ancient Greeks to the most recent papal encyclicals. The architecture program plumbs the same depths in its approach to the art of building and design, Haigh said, citing the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 80-15 B.C.), whose 10-book treatise on architecture is a core text for Benedictine’s architecture students.
“In Chapter 1, Book 1, Vitruvius says that architects should have a general knowledge of letters in order to leave a more lasting remembrance in their own work,” he said. “They are to study physics, music, law, medicine, astronomy, writing, drafting, geometry, lighting, arithmetic, and especially history and philosophy. Our students have access to all that at BC.”
Haigh also takes pride in the fact that Benedictine’s architecture students will graduate knowing as much, if not more, about the secrets of the pencil and paint brush as students in programs emphasizing modern technology will know about the latest cutting-edge architectural design software. “Students draft by hand,” he said. “We do everything by hand in the traditional way. We have no illusions that they will not be working with computers for the rest of their lives, but that’s the point: We have a relatively brief four-year window to help them develop hand-eye coordination, working with materials and art, not learning to be a functioning technician of a software program.”
The hands-on approach also promotes the idea that practicing for perfection makes the ideal more real to the students, Haigh said. “When we teach them about the art of architecture, immediately they start seeing the beauty,” he said. “At BC, we get to use the word ‘beauty’; that’s the wonderful thing about our program, which you won’t find in a typical architecture or design school. We talk about whether something is beautiful or not and use that as a criterion.”
The college’s architecture program began as a conversation between Benedictine’s president, Stephen Minnis, and Duncan Stroik, architect and professor of architecture at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture.
“One of the things about classical architecture is that it is intended for the broad public, to make the world a more beautiful place,” Stroik told the Register. “There is great support for classical buildings amongst the population, in spite of 100 years of modernism.”
For this reason, Stroik said, he saw the benefits of increasing the number of schools teaching classical architecture.
President Minnis, he said, “seemed passionate about his campus and about the built environment, so I reached out to him. To my happy surprise, he was interested, and we talked about the pros and cons of a college having an architecture school and the challenges in starting a new curriculum.” According to Minnis, he enthusiastically received Stroik’s proposal because he saw it as a perfect fit with the school’s overall mission.
“Benedictine’s vision is to transform culture in America,” he said. “We believe that culture can be transformed through our three-part mission of instilling a sense of community in an age of loneliness and polarization — faith in an age of hopelessness and incivility — and scholarship in a no-truth era, where we’re information-rich but analysis-poor.”
“Everything we do is based on this mission,” he added.
“In embracing a classical or traditional approach to architecture, getting to the foundation of beauty will in part transform culture.”
According to Haigh, Benedictine’s four-year program in architectural training is one year shy of the requirements for professional architectural licensing, but that doesn’t pose a problem for students, most of whom will likely go on to further their studies either through master’s programs such as the one offered at Notre Dame or in the professional field. (Regarding job prospects for architecture graduates, Haigh cited the enthusiastic praise of several firms around the country who have hired Benedictine graduates.)
“The four-year cycle seems to be more natural and make more sense to students attending college,” Haigh added.
Last year’s sole graduate of the architecture program at Benedictine, Natalie Heyda, works as an architectural intern for Sommer Design Studios in Newport News, Virginia.
According to Heyda, because both her parents were trained as architects — and her father owns his own firm — she knew early on, “since I was 9,” that she was going to study architecture in college.
The classical approach that Benedictine offers, Heyda said, “is so important today because it shows explicitly how beauty meets practicality.”
But the program also provides the means by which to evangelize the world through beauty, she added. “Architecture is a way to bring beauty into the world in a unique way,” Heyda said.
“Benedictine really emphasized this link between architecture and what is true, good and beautiful, and I’m bringing that mindset into the world with me. And as in any work I do, I strive to do it for God’s glory.”
A graduate of the first class in Benedictine’s architecture program, Margaret Jones of Jefferson City, Missouri, also knew she wanted to study architecture in college. “I was initially drawn to it as a kid because I saw it as a combination of my two favorite subjects in school: math and art,” she said. “I loved the idea of having a career that allowed me to be both creative and analytical all at once.” Today, Jones continues her studies at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and hopes to graduate with a master’s in architecture in 2022. “Because of my classical background at BC,” she said, “I found my first year at ND to be an easy and natural transition, which allowed me to dive even further into my studies.”
Looking back at her time at Benedictine, Jones said, the architecture program taught her to see her chosen field of study as a sacred undertaking. “Since I was able to specifically study sacred architecture while at BC, I was struck at how church architecture provides order to the fallen world and mirrors the ordered perfection of heaven,” she said. “I think in learning these lessons, I began to view practicing architecture as a way to show people true beauty and, in that, a glimpse of God himself.”