Thos. Gordon Smith, R.I.P.

Bond Hall, 1917, UND School of Architecture, 1964-2019. T.G. Smith led 1995 renovation. (Wikipedia)

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.

Thomas Gordon Smith (John Hudson Thomas Journal; photo by Rodney Mims Cook)

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.

Smith’s facade at 1980 Biennale. (Metalocus)

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.
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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.
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Fortunately, Traditional Building magazine published an interview by Gordon Bock of Smith, and his wife Marika of 50 years, as he retired from his Notre Dame professorship in 2016 (he retired from his deanship in 1998). Otherwise, we might not be able to quote Smith himself on this aspect of his many accomplishments. Bock quotes Smith as follows:
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[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.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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19 Responses to Thos. Gordon Smith, R.I.P.

  1. Steven W Semes says:

    For those of you who expressed interest in knowing more about how TGS succeeded at Notre Dame to the extent he did, I can offer little in the way of first-hand testimony, since I did not arrive at ND until 2005, but one thing I can say with confidence: Thomas, as talented and visionary as he was, did not do anything “single-handedly.” While he did face some opposition, he was also the able leader of a team of faculty members and supporters within the University who made his work possible. Generous credit must go to John Burgee, ND alumnus, member of the University Board of Directors, and former partner of Philip Johnson (and my former boss), who was instrumental in bringing Thomas to ND. Thomas won the support of the University Provost and other power centers in the upper administration. Among the young faculty he hired we must spotlight Duncan Stroik and Richard Economakis. And no appreciation of Thomas would be complete without recognizing the central role played by Marika Smith, who was not only an important part of the team but brought her own wise counsel and graciousness to the mix. It doesn’t take away from Thomas’s achievement to note that he had essential support from many of those who made the Notre Dame School of Architecture what it is.

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    • Thank you, Steve, for adding these essential details. I urge people to read the entire Bock interview, which very much included the participation of Marika Smith. I would have lacked the awareness to include her, and others such as John Burgee, had I attempted to a fuller picture of Smith’s allies in this endeavor. I am still trying to get a copy of Richard John’s monograph to further flesh out what some commenters agree is the conundrum of how such a polite individual as TGS managed to conquer the snake pit of ND politics during the period of the architecture school’s revolution.

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  2. Very thoughtful and interesting article about TGS. He is still “teaching” all of us and now watching over our progress and difficulties from heaven, as we continue the fight to make beautiful and civil architecture. May he Rest In Peace.

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  3. sethweine says:

    In Thomas’ first book (“Rule and Invention), and Dr. John’s, one can see how excitingly inventive TGS could be with the classical vocabulary. And another thing I’ve always admired about him:
    When it came to color, he was FEARLESS !

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    • That’s another reason why I want to read Dr. John’s book, not to mention Smith’s take on Vitruvius, which I miraculously discovered a couple days ago in the heap of my office library which the Journal trucked out to my house (generously) after sacking me in 2014!

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  4. Anonymous says:

    One month after graduate school, and never having worked in an office, TG got me my very first job at Allan Greenberg’s. I was there seven year’s with the best because of his good will and confidence.

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  5. STEVEN W SEMES says:

    Thank you, David Brussat, for your nice tribute. Many of Thomas’s colleagues and students are very much alive, and many of us hope to help document and celebrate his life and work in due course.

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    • Steve, I just mentioned to Bill W. below that you hoped to see more celebration and documentation of Thomas’s life. To document his life is to celebrate his life. I am rushing to acquire Richard John’s book, and hope he has more to say on Thomas’s defenestration of modernism at ND. I am so dreadfully ignorant regarding its details, and was lucky to be able to flesh out a workable post focusing on that aspect of Thomas’s life and work. I want to learn more.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    A wonderful review of TGS’s career and accomplishments. As the person who followed him as chairman I found the roots he had planted were deep and the growth wide and broad. Fundamental in the transformation was the quality and dedication of those he brought to the faculty, several still there. And not to be overlooked was the role of the Rome program that his predecessor, Frank Montana, had established and the University continued, and continues still, to support.

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    • Carroll William Westfall says:

      Not anonymous at all, but someone who is not a computer adept: Carroll William Westfall

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      • Thank you, Bill. I am grateful you did not lead a counterrevolution at ND when you got in after Thomas. (Of course, why would you?) And speaking of the Rome program, I see Steven Semes has weighed in above, hopes to generate more celebration and documentation of his life and work. Yes and yes! It seems to me that to document Thomas is to celebrate Thomas.

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  7. Steve Bass says:

    Thank you for this David. TGS is certainly a person of historical stature and had a major influence on the contemporary classical movement. I always looked forward to interactions with him and always learned something. He will be missed.

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    • Thank you very much, Steve. I want to know more about him for another piece I am writing and therefore hope to be able to get my hands on Richard John’s book in time to read it before writing. I’m sure he must have more to say about flipping Notre Dame!

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  8. sethweine says:

    Dear David,
    Thanks for that lovely article!
    As writer Gary Indiana pointed-out some queries are Mysteries (the eternal questions that are never closed-off); and some are Secrets (things which are knowable/verifiable—but which are currently obscured). Three of the latter, with regards to this great man are:
    — What really happened with the GSA appointment (within the GSA, withing the administration, within the TGS home and soul) ?
    — What really happened in the appointment of TGS at Notre Dame ?
    — How did he pull-off one of the great transformations in academic history ?
    Yes, you (and others) have stated the overall story in your wonderful article. And—for example, for the third question—one hears of TGS’s great charm, no doubt acting as a balm to the threatened Modernists who remained at ND when he started… But—
    But—now imgine we’re writing a serious, full-length, in-depth, “the man and his times” biography: We’d want to know a lot more of what happened, over time, internally and organizationally, in the boardrooms, the offices, the family, and in the soul, for each of these questions.
    Fortunately, I’m guessing that for all-the-above, they’re in “living memory”—that is to day:
    Living witnesses are still around, who could speak to these historically important points.
    {Some might be on the edge of leaving the scene (like senior members of ND’s central leadership, when TGS was appointed)—so smart historians would approach them soon, while they’re still incarnate.]
    TGS is a key person in the revival of a real Culture. He is, in the deepest, Heideggerian sense, interesting: he brought-in something to our essence.
    There’s real capital-h History do be done here! Don’t let it slip away…………!
    Respectfully yours,
    Seth Joseph Weine
    setheweine@aol.com

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    • Yes, Seth, those are indeed the three big questions. I wish I knew the answers. I only know enough to toy with possibilities. I am thinking that maybe Richard John’s book-length study of TGS has much to say on the third question. Unfortunately I do not have the book or access to it, at least not yet.

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  9. Milton Grenfell says:

    Thanks David. Very eloquent and interesting. I now know some things I didn’t know before. Maybe it took a Californian to buck the modernist tradition, and embrace the great tradition. He was sort of a gentle rebel.

    Milton

    >

    Like

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