A Quintessential American Architect

by Rev. Noah Waldman, appearing in Volume 40

Having been honored to have known Thomas Gordon Smith for nearly thirty years, first when I was his student and later as a friend, I think of this very magnanimous and brilliant man as the quintessential example of what it means to be an American.

By quintessential, I mean exemplar; by American, I mean a profound embodiment of our nation’s identity. Eric Voegelin described the ideal American character as one whose virtues, and from those virtues actions, are ordered according to a difficult yet harmonious synthesis of opposites: of the traditional and the innovative, of the historical and the “now,” of the perennially universal and the exclusively personal.

As American as They Come

Raised in northern California with the surname “Smith,” topped with a shock of fantastic dirty-blonde hair, he moved to the heartland of Indiana to create an iconic house and an iconic school of architecture; carrying one child after another in his left arm while his right arm was occupied in the exigencies of constructing, building, and writing; Thomas was as American as they come.

The First Church of Christ Scientist by Bernard Maybeck in San Francisco. Credit: wikimedia.org/Coro

Growing up in the Bay Area of California, the brilliant architecture of another quintessential American, the genius Bernard Maybeck, provided Thomas an early architectural mentorship. Maybeck knew the classical language through and through as evidenced by the octagonal Palace of the Fine Arts in San Francisco (1910). But he was best known for his idiosyncratic classical inventions, such as the weirdly wonderful E.C.A. Packard Showroom (1927) and the First Church of Christ Scientist (1910, addition 1927) whose portal addition resonates with the propylon of Smith’s first home in Richmond Hill.

Portico of Thomas Gordon Smith’s Richmond Hill House

His second family home was Thomas’ personal story of the great tradition of architecture, presented in a synthesis sui generis and also sine pari. The iconic Vitruvian House was adorned outside with diastylos in antis Roman Ionic columns and ceramic metopes depicting Hercules’ twelve labors. The interior cross-vaults are adorned with an iconographic program of frescoes with renderings of architects and popes, and buildings both beautiful and strange, painted in a bold style all Thomas’ own. The result is pure Thomas: a synthesis of architectural history, with a story told by a master storyteller which could not have been told by anyone else.

Rules and Inventions

This story was first told in Thomas’ Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention of 1988. There is nothing out there like it.

No artist can invent a new language, for any “new” artistic grammar must come, inevitably and unavoidably, from the tradition and the rules of design well-established by the masters of the past. Likewise, to abide by such rules without a spirit of invention is in Thomas’ envisioning undesirable—for America especially, this land of the old and new.

A necessary note on “invention”: Just as every architect cannot avoid the hypothetical necessity practicing within some tradition, so too even the most archaeological and imitative of architects cannot avoid injecting some admixture of invention into his designs.

Works which appear to the less-nuanced of eyes to be uninventive will be seen, upon careful study, to be just as inventive—almost certainly less audaciously so than Thomas’ or Maybeck’s output, but inventive nonetheless, shaded with subtly and imbued with a different “feeling” in the form (to use Susanne Langer’s vocabulary). The classicism of John Russell Pope, or of more contemporary architects of note such as Robert A.M. Stern or of Duncan Stroik, too, is permeated with invention; but diversely so.

The spirit of Rule and Invention is a declaration of the artist as the creative and summative point of intersection in cultural expression. It is also a declaration on the spirit of what “quintessentially American” art must be: a harmonization between the old world and the new, and of the universal and personal.

Smith’s Success

Most architects have failed in their attempts at finding the right balance, falling into pastiche and post-
modernism. In Thomas’ hands, the results were always masterful, from his façade on La Strada Novissima at the 1980 Venice Biennale to the minimalist mausolea near the Notre Dame campus. All possess presence, strength, and a haunting power. All capture the genius loci of this, the American landscape.

In a different era, an era unpoisoned by modernism, that viral invasion which brought European despair to our optimistic shores, Thomas could have probably achieved much more, though his achievements would not be as heroic. Is not the hero, too—the man who fights for his truth against all odds—also inherent to the American ideal?

Like this experiment we call America, a man such as Thomas Gordon Smith is a rarity in history. I for one, speaking on behalf of so many of his former students and friends, will miss him greatly. I bid you, Thomas, a fond farewell.