An Architect’s Sources

by John P. Haigh, appearing in Volume 40

Sketch by Thomas Gordon Smith of Santa Susanna in Rome

Thomas Gordon Smith’s personal sketchbooks run into the thousands of pages. Included are well-documented buildings and images from travels around the world, project site and client meeting notes, academic and work schedules, sketches of permutations of ideas for projects, and—most enjoyable—fantastically creative drawings and watercolors of architectural conceits that would never come to fruition.

The pages in Smith’s sketchbooks of measured drawings, which detail architectural components as varied as gardens and rooms of residential and public buildings and components of nineteenth-century furniture, reveal in his notational and graphic style the analytical eye of the craftsman, the practitioner, and the artist.

His collection of drawings exhibits conceptual sketches and their development through scheme after scheme for various architectural solutions, from the practical to the margins of the whimsical, and they showcase the talent of a true artist and the training of a theoretician.

From the uber-artistic idea as creative outlet to the hands-on measured survey drawing, his sketchbooks reveal the full range of the classic and quintessential architectural mind.

The Influential Sources

Clues as to the influential sources of the ways, means, reasons, and necessity of such an extensive library of personal sketchbooks can be found in Smith’s own writings.

In his commentary in Vitruvius on Architecture, he notes specific instances in which the seventeenth-century Italian architect Francesco Borromini, “thoroughly versed in both Vitruvian and Palladian canons,” in addition to emulating the built works of antiquity, of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and of Andreas Palladio, “borrowed from a sixteenth-century sketchbook.”

The sketchbook Smith references is the Codex Coner, a volume of annotated ink and chalk drawings and wash renderings of ancient and contemporary Roman monuments and architectural fragments by the Florentine carpenter Bernardo della Volpaia, who worked closely with the Sangallo family.

The degree to which this Renaissance sketchbook influenced Smith’s spirit of freedom in seriously designing with the classical orders is exhibited in the title of his Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention, published in 1988.

The tradition of the treatise writers since Vitruvius supplied the rule; the tradition of architectural prints and sketchbooks, particularly the Codex Coner, supplied the fertile soil for invention within the rule.

The Codex Coner is one of the most beautiful and extensive surviving Renaissance architectural sketchbooks and is now preserved at the Sir John Soane Museum in London, where Smith would have accessed it on one of his many visits.

This type of sketchbook collection represents the earliest form of architectural print—page after page of hand-copied and annotated drawings.

The first three decades of the 1500s mark a methodological shift in the graphic representation of buildings. Accuracy and dimensions became critical to the examination of everything ancient, including the studies of fragments that were readily available around Rome.

However, scales were rarely provided; drawings rarely aligned. The Codex Coner holds fast to a tradition celebrating the ornamented fragments, something that would have caught Smith’s studious and painterly eye.

The Codex also fused Rome’s past and present across a 1500-year history, an aspect also attractive to the history-minded Smith. The Codex remains unmatched in its clarity, breadth, and exquisiteness.

It might be considered an early version of a pattern book—a type of book that Smith would study and admire during his career. Among his published books and articles, Smith wrote about, provided documentation for, and annotated many types of pattern books, especially those concerning the topic of early-nineteenth-century American furniture and decorative arts.

Convenience and Prestige

Prominent architectural historians helped bring the Codex to Smith’s attention. For example, he was familiar with, and routinely cited, Joseph Connors’ writings.

In Borromini and the Roman Oratory, Connors writes: “Borromini certainly studied the ruins as profoundly as any contemporary…. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a certain convenience and perhaps prestige in looking at antiquity in the pages of the classic treatises; the best expression of this attitude can be found in the title adopted by Borromini’s friend Martinelli for his most famous guidebook: Rome Researched [Both] on the Site and in the School of all the Antiquarians.”

Connors speculates that Borromini, for a niched-apsidal design, would have had to have seen Bramante’s similar plans as sketched and documented in the Codex Coner.

In Smith’s Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention, he writes of the Codex Coner: “Michelangelo copied the Doric order of the Theater of Marcellus from it. More than 100 years later Borromini sketched another Doric entablature from the Codex and employed its unusual triglyphs in his aediculae at the Palazzo della Propaganda Fide. Contemporary architects should emulate this practice by sketching details from historical buildings and utilize their notebooks when solving problems in design.”

When called upon to engage to a greater extent in the field of architecture than that of painting and sculpture, Michelangelo re-grounded himself in the details of antiquity both from the latest archeological discoveries and field studies, and from theory.

Architect Richard Cameron relates that Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library is unto itself a thesis statement about the nature of architecture. At the same time, it is an impossible product without Michelangelo’s access to, and intense study of, the architectural details in the Codex Coner.

Over time, a drawing collection such as the Codex was as important as the recorded monuments themselves, due to periodic inaccessibility to the monuments. Architects today may sympathize with the experience of periodical and severe limitation of close-up study of Roman monuments and antiquities in person.

Lively Mental Energy

Renaissance drawings such as those found in the Codex are sometimes criticized for their inaccuracies and unfamiliar documentation style that typically represents an unorthodox combination of orthographic and perspectival presentation, including dimensions—often in the same drawings. Sometimes their real usefulness is called into question.

Not so in the case of Smith. Most of the sketches in the Codex attempt to be informative as well as artistic. As such, they allow for some amount of interpretation, which is precisely their attraction to the architect who designs with, to use Smith’s favorite phrase, “lively mental energy.”

The types of drawings in the Codex belong to the theory and history of architecture as well as painting, because the drawings themselves reveal an ancient understanding of an approach to design: as products of both imitation and invention they are works of art themselves even as they reveal or point to another artifact or type. The Codex Coner shows that Renaissance architects in general made and interpreted drawings in a much broader variety of ways—compared to modern architects—and with a greater diversity of goals.

Some of the sketches of archaeological artifacts in the Codex show signs of having been touched-up or “improved” by subsequent architects. Copies were made by hand and edits and errors naturally accrue. In that manner the Codex Coner represents the type of living record that, as a working sketchbook, was shared, copied, or passed-on.

Along with the sketches of archaeological artifacts and related details, the Codex provided many plan typologies that were descriptive enough but not proscriptive, allowing for creative re-interpretation as the latest design problem may require.

Smith would argue that every architect has the opportunity, indeed obligation, to assume the role of historian and be immersed in solutions to recurring design problems throughout the ages. Not having to reinvent the wheel in a herculean effort to achieve originality allows the architect to move forward with agility and speed, yet not without grace. History and theory alone are not sufficient for the practitioner.

Therein lies the importance of the Codex Coner: the document is only alive in the hands of the practicing architect who is at once an artist and a historian. An architectural historian separated from the profession is a modern construct, and one that represents a severe deficiency for those in practice. Smith’s admonition to return to the lessons of history reminds one of the Wilberforce Eames statement: “Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.”

Smith and the Codex

Many examples of work from Smith’s projects reveal the Codex’s influence on his practice. One example is a Corinthian capital designed by Smith in a garden court in Frankfurt alongside a sketch from the Codex.

L: Capital in the Garden Court of Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt, R: Plate 151 (partial) of the Codex Coner

While Smith was a prolific photographer of classical capitals of all types in situ throughout his travels, there is no doubt that this undescribed sketch in the Codex lay at the root of his design. Similarities include the acanthus-entwined pair of rosettes; the central anthemion at the top of the bell; the geometrically-ordered multiple rows of various species of leaves (Smith substituted a row of laurel leaves for the sketched palm leaves); and the clarity and openness through the leaves making visible the connection between the horizontal abacus and the vertical “bell.”

Perhaps the biggest “tell” is the exaggerated angle of the abacus profile mouldings, which is rare and admittedly bears some semblance to the Corinthian capital of the Odeon of Agrippa. However, it might also be a nod to the forced perspective angle of the abacus as depicted in the original Codex sketch.

Another example may be viewed in a seminary chapel outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. Smith shows a photograph of a similarly executed capital, which dates to the Augustan period, in his Vitruvius on Architecture. Here we have a fascinating issue to ponder insofar as we might consider the possibility that not only did Smith observe this sketch in the Codex, but that both he and the artist may have documented a similar, or even the same, archaeological artifact!

L: Capital in the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, Denton, Nebraska. Credit: Thomas Stroka. R: Plate 119 (partial) of the Codex Coner

A Delight

A more private example is in Smith’s own dining room at Vitruvian House, wherein he employs the ancient art of scaenographia, a theatrical mode of fresco painting that combines scenes of architectural frameworks in both elevation and perspective (like a typical Codex architectural detail).

Dining Room of Thomas Gordon Smith’s Vitruvian House

Smith, the architect, was the fresco artist of the part of the room with physical doorways and windows. Near one private doorway that leads out of the dining room through the smooth, curving plaster wall, Smith frescoed a trompe-l’oeil, Pompeian-inspired, framing architectural perspective for a large window (a design also reiterated at a primary doorway).

The frescoed attenuated, dancing Solomonic columns, whose ornamentation appears indirectly influenced by lively counterparts in the Codex Coner, at either side of the window support a breezily-painted entablature, complete with perspectival and chiaroscuro effects. An adjacent physical doorway to private rooms, while only a simple rectangle in the curved wall without mouldings, peers out only partway through the painted shadows and beneath the vanishing lines of the frescoed perspective. This to the delight of both the artist and the architect, who was Thomas Gordon Smith.