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A new generation of artisans is being trained in classical methods to replace the sterile, joyless concrete and glass structures we’ve been stuck with since the 1960s. Thanks to this renewal effort, beauty is making a comeback in the public square.
While fans of clichés will insist beauty is in the eye of the beholder, numerous surveys say otherwise. The public despises brutalist designs by an overwhelming 3-to-1 margin. Traditional styles, by contrast, draw one’s attention because they are attractive. One day, as he was driving in the mountains north of Los Angeles, actor Anthony Hopkins noticed an ornate tower rising high above the tree line and, intrigued, decided to stop and investigate. He found himself on the campus of Thomas Aquinas College. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my life,” he explained during an impromptu question and answer session with students. “It’s amazing.”
The campus was designed in a traditional, old Spanish mission style. Duncan Stroik, a professor at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, is the mastermind behind the tower of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. Notre Dame was once the lone outpost teaching the principles of traditional design—but fortunately, other colleges have since dedicated themselves to the cause of beauty.
In South Carolina, the American College of the Building Arts, which opened in 2004, offers a Great Books core curriculum as well as education in various craft specializations (such as carpentry, blacksmithing, architecture, and more). Classically educated students are thus armed with old world skills that have been forgotten in the modern age. The school formed after Hurricane Hugo devastated Charleston’s historic area, and those tasked with rebuilding the great city realized they had nowhere to turn to find artisans up to the restoration task. The American College of the Building Arts has seen multiple years of record enrollment.
I recently had the privilege of touring the college and saw dazzling objects fashioned in wood, stone, and metal. They evoke the awe one might feel after gazing upon an ancient monument or visiting a great European cathedral, with all of its adornments.
Thousands of craftsmen were enlisted in the construction of unrivaled marvels of engineering such as the Duomo in Florence or Notre Dame in Paris. These remarkable endeavors took more than a century to complete. As a society, we no longer undertake any effort on such a grand scale today—and certainly not for the sake of beauty.
That could change, as more schools embrace the concept of interweaving creative skills and classical learning. The College of St. Joseph the Worker in Steubenville, Ohio, is an even newer entrant to the field, pairing a Catholic liberal arts education with training in trades. Students can graduate with a license as an electrician, carpenter, masonry worker, HVAC specialist, or plumber, all of which are in high demand; this work cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence or outsourced to China. By serving an apprentice role during schooling, students can earn enough money to graduate debt-free and with the ability to start a business of their own. Such work is essential to the construction of buildings in a beautiful, traditional style that will meet modern building codes.
The field’s newest entrant is Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts, which is planning to open a campus in Gallup, New Mexico, next year. Students will learn how to work with their hands, and the classical curriculum will ensure their creative output serves a higher purpose.
The deliberate rejection of purpose is precisely what makes modern design so displeasing to most of the public. Today’s celebrated architects are driven by an ideological rejection of the past and of the constraints of nature (and, by extension, of nature’s Creator).
We ought instead to throw off the shackles of the 1960s, because great art is timeless. Let’s make more of it.
Jeremy Wayne Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.
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