Classical architect Thomas Gordon Smith died peacefully in his sleep near the South Bend, Ind., campus of the University of Notre Dame, age 73. His many admirers have adorned pages with encomiums to his commitment to classical architecture, to its many centuries of beauty on into a more graceful future, and to generations of students who are now spreading his word through their buildings in, so far as I can tell, every corner of the world.
Smith was educated at Berkeley during the heyday of postmodernism, studying under Charles Moore, then won a Rome Prize fellowship, which he concluded with his contribution of a façade in the 1980 Venice Biennale’s Strada Novissima, a hallway of “ironic” cartoon façades representing the fad of the moment in architecture. This experience turned Smith’s mind toward the rigorous classicism that was a refugee from the postmodernist movement. By the end of his sojourn in Rome, Smith had, as widely noted in his obituaries, “become fully committed” to classicism of ancient Greece and Rome. However, in a 1982 retrospective of the biennale, critic Paul Goldberger had this to say:
We can see instantly, for example, how the talented Allan Greenberg is in his own way as much a dogmatist as any of the modernist theorists whose work he seeks to supplant. Thomas Gordon Smith, younger than Mr. Greenberg, comes off as a kind of naive or folk classicist; his facade has none of the sternness of Mr. Greenberg’s pure pristine white classical composition, but is instead a rather zestful, splashy and slightly vulgar parade of images, classicism filtered through the lens of California.
It’s relatively clear why Smith would want to distance himself from all of this.
After Rome, Smith opened his own practice, taught architecture at several universities, and by decade’s end became a professor at, then chairman of, the University of Notre Dame’s department of architecture, whose separation from its engineering school he led, in 1989-90, shifting it from a conventional modernist approach to a novel classical approach. By 1995, the New York Times had described the young school as “the Athens of the new movement.”
One of his early students at Notre Dame, the classicist and educator Christine Huckins Franck, described Smith’s impact on architecture:
A great light has gone out in the world with the passing of Thomas Gordon Smith. He created Notre Dame’s classical architecture program and will forever be the intellectual spirit and driving force of the contemporary classical renaissance.
Today, Notre Dame’s architecture school bestrides the world like a colossus. Some 1,200 classicists formed at Notre Dame have expanded the number of classically oriented architecture firms from a mere handful to hundreds around the world today. It is widely asserted that Notre Dame graduates are far more likely to secure jobs as designers than graduates of the typical modernist academic program. Mark Foster Gage, ’97, writes of the impact of Smith’s leadership:
[H]e’s the person who single-handedly turned Notre Dame into a classical architecture program, and they’ve been pumping graduates into the world with these highly unusual but very sought-after skills for three decades.
In 2006, Smith was nominated by George W. Bush to be chief architect of the General Services Administration, which is in charge of designing the vast federal portfolio of architecture. It is testimony to Smith’s influence that the entire modernist establishment rose in horror at the prospect, and managed to block his appointment. The brouhaha may have served as a dry run for the more recent effort against Donald Trump’s executive order to promote classicism in federal architecture – in a manner not altogether dissimilar to Smith’s transformation of architectural education at Notre Dame.
Indeed, without that transformation it would be difficult to imagine a president daring to turn federal building design away from modernist styles. In fact, the transformation itself ensures that the classical revival is strong enough to absorb the defeat of the Trump initiative and continue in the fight against modern architecture, which remains dominant in the profession.
As Henry Kissinger said, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” No sir! Not during the regime change in the School of Architecture at Notre Dame. It would be interesting to have been a fly on the wall in the room where the famously modest and unassuming Smith announced to his modernist faculty that he was changing to a classical curriculum.
Architect Milton Grenfell sheds some light on the dynamics:
[Smith] coming to ND plopped him down into a nest of Modernists. He only got the job because the school was about to fold, and in desperation someone recommended TGS, with his respectable credentials. He was young, bright, published, and his designs edgy – though not entirely in the direction they perhaps wanted..But it was the tail end of the postmodern era, and tossing a few columns around was okay, and even transgressive in its own way. I’m not sure anyone without the charm and graciousness of TGS could have survived the academic modernist snake pit. But he did, and each year, he hired a few more traditionalists, until most of the mods retired. It was his graciousness – and intellect – that enabled him to survive, and flourish..
[T]he conversion to classical [writes Bock] did not meet with instant or unanimous approval. “It’s a five-year program, and students at the upper level just weren’t interested at all,” says Smith, so they kept the program as is for those with only two or three more years to finish. “It was with new people – some of whom were shocked, but others who were responsive – where we began to build up the classical program.”
Bock makes the vital point that not only education and practice in the profession were powerfully influenced by the emergence of a very strong voice for classical design, but potential clients, and indeed all of us as daily observers of the built environment, were suddenly permitted to understand that the beauty of the past was not irretrievably lost. “They’re learning that ‘[t]here’s something out there that we like, and now we can have it done.’”
Today few people understand how traditional architectural practice had by the 1960s come so close to eradication by the modernist architectural establishment. As Marika Smith puts it, in describing some of the more open-minded professors who influenced him at Berkeley:
“His professors weren’t necessarily enthused about some of the ideas he was developing, but it was a much more open school; they didn’t see classicism as something archaic.” Or as Smith puts it, “Even if not interested, some were at least able to avoid the idea that ‘It’s over and you can’t do this anymore.’”
Nevertheless, adds Smith: “One professor asked, ‘What is it you want to do—applied archeology?’”
That attitude still prevails among the architectural establishment today. But public attitudes toward style have maintained a healthy skepticism toward modernism and a strong preference for the classical and traditional throughout the century during which modern architecture emerged in Europe and ousted tradition from its eminence here in the United States and around the world. The amazing thing is not so much that Smith became a classicist in spite of this, but that, amid the clear failure of modernism, the huge preponderance of architects, theorists and educators did not.
Thomas Gordon Smith’s kindness and gentle erudition is characteristic of his personality because classicism itself is kind and gentle. It is a conundrum that a man of such personal modesty should preside over such profound change. All who knew him – and all who did not know him – owe him deep gratitude for his role in reviving a lovely architecture for the world. May he rest in peace.