Notre Dame and Under Armour: Building a Unique Uniform

Not being a sports fan, press reports about Under Armour’s new uniforms for the University of Notre Dame’s famous football team would normally get a pass from me.  Yes, I graduated from Notre Dame Law, and yes, I own a few articles of clothing by Under Armour – Superman shirts, natch.  Yet those facts alone usually wouldn’t be enough to attract my attention.  However when I read that the company looked to the buildings of Notre Dame itself for inspiration when designing these particular uniforms, that connection seemed worth exploring.

If you know a little bit about Notre Dame, even from such films as “Knute Rockne, All American” or “Rudy”, you know that the football team’s helmets are painted gold.  This references the Main Building or “Golden Dome” at the heart of the school’s campus, which is topped by a gold dome crowned with a statue of Our Lady.  You may also be aware of the giant mosaic mural affectionately known as “Touchdown Jesus”, This covers the south facade of Hesburgh Library, and is visible from the Notre Dame football stadium.  The image of a triumphant Christ, His arms raised in blessing, is reminiscent of a football referee signaling a touchdown.

The headline of the article linked to above isn’t exactly correct, in that the new uniforms don’t look like campus buildings themselves.  That sort of design would prove rather cumbersome when running around a field: someone in a suit shaped like one of the beehive turrets on Sorin Hall would find it difficult to slip past an offensive onslaught, for example.  Instead, the references are in one instance, subtle, and in another, quite bold.

Just as the team helmets are a nod to the university’s headquarters, so the sleeves and the sock tops of the new uniforms now bear a stripe referencing the striped top of Hesburgh Library.  I can’t say that I like that building, which is one of those mid-century concrete monstrosities by disciples of Le Corbusier.  Nevertheless I can appreciate why, for Notre Dame football players and fans, this subtle reference to Touchdown Jesus will  be regarded with affection.

The real eye-opener though, is the design for the “Shamrock Series”, a newer sports tradition at Notre Dame.  The shirt and accompanying gloves feature an intricate, Renaissance Revival pattern, which reproduce the pattern of the floor tiles inside the central hall of the Golden Dome itself.  Now this is a form of architectural reference in clothing design, done in quite a passionate, attractive way.  Yes, I know it’s probably over the top for most people, but if the Italian condottieri and Spanish conquistadores of the 15th and 16th centuries were around today, they would probably be wearing something like this base layer beneath their steel armor.

Of course, placing a stripe or tile with an architectural reference onto an article of clothing made for athletes, then translated for public consumption, isn’t going to convert me into a football fan.  However, even this non-sports fan scrivener might be willing to pick up a shirt or a pair of socks bearing such a reference, if the mood strikes.  I appreciate a bold design, and much as I hated the isolation and the interminable South Bend winters, I do remember good times like tailgate parties in the stadium parking lot during football season, even if the games had no interest for me.  And in building these updated uniforms upon the architectural beauty of the campus itself, Notre Dame and Under Armour have done a great job.

Detail of Under Armour's design for the Notre Dame "Shamrock Series" uniforms

Detail of Under Armour’s design for the Notre Dame “Shamrock Series” uniforms

 

 

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The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris

 

Batman and the Basilica

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, hard as it is to believe that so much time has passed.  At the time of its premiere, “Batman” was a revelation for many reasons, not least of which was the design of the film.  From lighting to sets to costumes, the movie continues to draw the eye even today, a combination of 1940’s film noir with the shocking colors of comic book exaggeration, reflecting the era in which Batman himself first appeared on newsstands.  Even the look of Vicki Vale, as played by Kim Basinger – full confession: I had a poster of her as Vale in my room as a teen – owed much to film noir actresses of the 1940’s, like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake.  Basinger of course, would later go on to win an Oscar for portraying a Veronica Lake call girl look-alike in the movie L.A. Confidential, itself an homage to the films of the 1940’s.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday was the 162nd birthday of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1956), whose work the reader is already very familiar with if he is a regular visitor to these pages.  Combining a host of design influences from Gothic castles to Hindu temples, Japanese forts to Arabian palaces, his work is impossible to categorize, but never fails to make a profound impression.  Interestingly however, one of the centerpieces of Burton’s take on the story of the Dark Knight owes a great deal to the uniqueness of this architect.

British designer Anton Furst was charged with helping bring the Gotham City of Burton’s imagination to life on screen, and managed such a remarkable achievement that he won an Academy Award for his efforts.  Mixing various elements from the history of architectural design into a stunning, if oppressive whole, Furst’s greatest challenge would prove to be that of Gotham City Cathedral, where the climactic final conflict between Batman and The Joker takes place.  In trying to come up with a design for the building, Furst realized that the right reference for this singular element was the work of Antoni Gaudí.

In an interview he gave for a book accompanying the release of the Burton film, Furst explained how he tackled the problem of creating a structure which would fit into the world of the Caped Crusader, as envisioned by Burton:

The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle…I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

Gaudí himself was strongly influenced by Japanese design in his own work, a fact which is not lost upon the Japanese themselves, who are among the most enthusiastic patrons of his work and legacy.  Japanese individuals and corporations have been particularly generous over the past several decades in their contributions toward the ongoing work of completing the architect’s magnum opus. the still-under-construction Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  When completed, the Basilica will be the tallest church in the world at 560 feet (170 meters), although that is nowhere near the height of the fictional cathedral created by Furst for the film.  Fortunately, despite its massive size, the completed Basilica will be nowhere near as dark and frightening as Furst’s creation.

Interestingly enough, just a few years ago DC Comics came out with a special one-off Batman adventure, which was set in Barcelona and featured a climactic encounter between Batman and Killer Croc at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.  In doing so the comic’s writers and designers referenced the tale of St. George and the Dragon, one of the favorite legends for Catalans since St. George is the patron saint of both Barcelona and Catalonia.  However one wonders whether they were aware of the fact that they were not the first to see the potential connection between the Dark Knight and Catalonia’s most famous architect.

Cover art for "Batman in Barcelona" by Jim Lee (2009)

Cover art for “Batman in Barcelona” by Jim Lee (2009)