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The Classical Architect as Innovator

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The Classical Architect as Innovator

Thomas Gordon Smith led a resurgence of teaching and practice of traditional forms. July 15, 2021
Arts and Culture
Education
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Thomas Gordon Smith, a renowned architect who sparked a counter-revolution in architectural education by reviving the classical tradition without irony or plagiarism, died June 23 in South Bend, Indiana, at 73. He is survived by Marika, his wife of 50 years, along with a sister and brother, six children, and 11 grandchildren.

A leading figure in classical architecture and architectural education in the United States for more than three decades, Smith strove to walk—and sometimes to dance on—the line between rule and innovation. He once described his life’s work as simply “to make traditional forms of architecture vitally expressive today.”

Most of the obituaries for Smith rightly focus on his devotion to his family and his accomplishments as a leader in education and the architectural profession. Knitting it all together, though, was a vibrant Catholic faith. “After all, God is not dead, but those who sounded the clarion for Modernism certainly are,” he wrote in a 1997 Catholic Dossier article titled “A New Architecture to Honor the Church’s Vision and Legacy.” He continued: “I attribute my desire for liberation from such strictures [Modernist] to having been raised Catholic.”

Smith’s West Coast manner was charming and debonair but also down-to-earth: his was a personality of visionary power, conviction, and, to use one of his favorite Vitruvian phrases, “lively mental energy.” In a 1978 letter in response to the renowned architectural historian Charles Jencks, Smith wrote of the aim of his architectural designs in a way that applied more broadly to his life: “I’m striving for a richness of meaning.”

Smith had a knack for cutting to the chase—tactfully but firmly, often with gentle humor but sometimes with acerbic wit. His shock of white hair in later years earned him the moniker “Vanilla Thunder” from his students. Students and employees always knew to expect incisive comments and even sharp criticisms of their work, but he would follow up these initial volleys with congratulations for their effort, some fatherly wisdom, and words of encouragement. He brought to any gathering more oxygen, more flavor, more buzz. His curiosity and wide-ranging interests seemed to charge every space he occupied with energy. He was not shy about expressing his opinions and never backed down.

He also had a playful side: on a walk around his neighborhood, he once took a photograph of a house for sale with his hand holding a sunflower that matched the freshly painted trim and mailed it as a postcard to an employee. On the reverse, he bantered in the persona of a real estate agent hawking the run-of-the-mill brick ranch-style home, jokingly referring to it as a “modern masterpiece [that] exudes contempo-charm.” On another occasion, dining at a South Bend chain restaurant, he observed of the lack of resolution in the haphazard jumble of details typical of corporate architecture: “form follows coincidence.”

University of Miami professor Richard John’s Thomas Gordon Smith: The Rebirth of Classical Architecture catalogs the events of Smith’s life, work, and rise as one of the luminaries of classical and traditional architecture. Following on his double degrees from the University of California Berkeley (a bachelor of arts in painting and a master’s in architecture), Smith was awarded the esteemed Rome Prize in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome in 1978. There he met architectural historian Joseph Connors, who fueled his appreciation for the greatly maligned Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Smith also befriended art historian John Beldon Scott, who instilled in him the necessity of employing in each project a developed program of iconography—in stone, fresco, painting, and/or sculpture. The third member of Smith’s triad of mentor-friends in Rome, Father George Rutler, walked him through a rebirth in his religious faith, as well as a deeper understanding of Roman Catholic liturgy and the programming of sacred architecture.

Smith’s design at the academy of a Baroque-inspired oratory dedicated to St. John Vianney led to his becoming one of only 20 architects to be awarded a façade on La Strada Novissima at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Upon viewing Smith’s work at the Biennale, eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote that Smith “stands alone in America, I think, in the haunting aura with which he can endow his images.”

Smith’s newfound notoriety ironically made him a difficult hire upon his stateside return. Longtime acquaintance Robert A. M. Stern told him that he was now “internationally recognized—you can’t just work for somebody.” Smith found consolation in continuing to sketch house designs for his growing family, as well as for friends. Then a reconstruction of La Strada Novissima of the Venice Biennale in San Francisco in 1982 attracted the attention and patronage of Heinrich Klotz, the founding director of the German Architecture Museum. Klotz not only purchased Smith’s Biennale drawings for his new museum at Frankfurt am Main but also wrote the preface to Smith’s first book, Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention, in which he declared: “Few contemporary architects have engaged in such a direct revival of the classical language as Thomas Gordon Smith. . . . I resolved to go to Venice to see the baroque work of this enfant terrible.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Smith was invited to teach at the College of Marin, UCLA, SCI-Arc, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Yale University. His circle of friends, acquaintances, and intellectual mentors included the renowned architects Paolo Portoghesi, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, Allan Greenberg, Robert Stern, Léon Krier, John Burgee, and Stanley Tigerman, as well as composer Lou Harrison, harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, painter David Ligare, historians David Watkin and David Gebhard, and archaeologist Lothar Haselberger. Many other notables rounded out the liberal arts spectrum of Smith’s associates over the decades, including a longstanding friendship with Berkeley professors of dance David and Marni Thomas Wood, under whom he studied the Martha Graham Technique of dance.

In 1989, Smith was named chairman of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, a position he held for nearly a decade. He rescued the program from the abyss of probation by revising and refocusing its curriculum. Inspired by the writings of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, Smith made Notre Dame’s one of the foremost schools of architecture in the U.S. and the world’s sole accredited program committed to architectural classicism. “This isn’t paint-by-number architecture,” Smith told U.S. News & World Report in 2004. “I’m constantly inventing.”

Smith remained on the Notre Dame faculty until 2016, and in 2017 he earned the Arthur Ross Award for his contributions to the field of education. What Smith was able to accomplish in South Bend was, according to the distinguished classical architect and educator John Blatteau, “nothing less than miraculous.”

Smith’s major projects include Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey (Hulbert, Oklahoma); the Classical Galleries in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City); Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary (Denton, Nebraska); the Cathedral City Civic Center (Cathedral City, California); private residences in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Indiana; several buildings on the Notre Dame campus, including the Our Lady of Sorrows master plan; and the mausolea in Cedar Grove Cemetery, where he is entombed.

Smith will also be remembered for his enthusiastic writings on Grecian furniture and architectural design in the United States, as well as his frescos, furniture designs, and garden. Of the three Vitruvian principles of architecture—firmitas, utilitas, venustas—it is the third, translated alternately as delight, charm, or beauty (and perhaps more accurately as a blend of all three), that most accurately sums up this consummate gentleman, whose fruitful life became a continual prayer of thanksgiving.

Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

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