Philip Bess

  • Professor, School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame, USA


He teaches graduate urban design and theory, with a particular interest in Catholic and classical humanist intellectual and artistic traditions in the context of modern American life and the contemporary culture of architecture and urban design. Under his direction between 2006 and  2018, the Notre Dame graduate urban design studio began an ongoing, episodically funded, multi-year project called After Burnham: The Notre Dame Plan of Chicago 2109, which envisions metropolitan Chicago at the bicentennial of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, and is devoted to exploring whether and how Notre Dame's professed classical humanist ideals might be applied at the scale of the modern metropolis. Before coming to Notre Dame in 2004 he taught architecture and urban design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Michigan, Miami of Ohio, Calvin College, and Andrews University. He lectures widely, and is the author of numerous articles and three books:  City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parks  (Knothole, 1991);  Inland Architecture: Subterranean Essays on Moral Order and Formal Order in Chicago  (Interalia / Design, 2000); and Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred  (ISI, 2006). In 2013-14 he was a William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions; in May 2015 he received the degree Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa from The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California; and he is a Fall 2019 Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

Academic biography

Research topics

My current research interests generally organize themselves around a broadly Aristotelian understanding of cities as agrarian-urban places that are simultaneously "communities of communities" that as cities exist to promote individual human flourishing understood as a life of moral and intellectual excellence lived in community with others; and that this basic idea (including the dignity of every human person, and exactly who belongs to the human community) has been extended and expanded in the historic wedding of classical humanist virtue ethics anthropology with a biblical understanding of creation, sin, history, eschatology, and (n.b. urban) redemption. This metaphysical realist understanding of the nature and purpose of cities (and architecture) informs my interest in the following three research topics, inter-related but in no particular rank order:

  1. Land Use Law and Natural Law: From a Thomist understanding of law (whether divine, natural, or positive) as an ordinance of reason for the common good promulgated by a legitimate political authority, I am interested in ubiquitous contemporary use-based zoning law and property tax law as specimens of positive law. More specifically, it is prima facie evident to me that present-day zoning and property tax law violate the common good requirements of natural law. I am therefore particularly interested in a) the ascent of Form-Based-Codes (a post-sprawl / anti-sprawl invention of the Congress for the New Urbanism), which presume and permit a mix of uses within pedestrian proximity, and zone not according to use but according to density and building types; and b) land value taxation, which would incentivize development and dis-incentivize private land-banking by taxing the rental value of land and not taxing the value of buildings and other improvements to land). My interest in both FBCs and land value taxation is as alternative forms of positive law pertinent to land use that would better incentivize and reward environmental stewardship, promote a more just distribution of external / instrumental goods (including housing) to families, laborers, and entrepreneurs, and perforce better serve the common good.
  2. Christian sacramental theology as the most coherent intellectual framework for articulating how cities as contingent, practical, material, and necessarily historical human artifacts nevertheless (and simultaneously) can and do sacramentally participate in sacred order -- eternal, transcendent, Divine -- primarily as beautiful things experienced holistically, but also episodically manifesting beauty, goodness, and truth in some of their constituent parts.
  3. Chicago 2109 [], a “big plan” designed – for reasons of both solidarity and subsidiarity, and perhaps similar to the ideas of common grace and sphere sovereignty -- to promote hundreds of smaller local plans, pursued off and on with Notre Dame graduate urban design students to imagine and envision historic metropolitan Chicago as both a practical Aristotelian polis at regional scale and an anticipation of -- and occasional sacramental participant in -- the Heavenly Jerusalem.