Editorial: Euge Serve Bone et Fidelis

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 40

“You were once slow in believing that Christ had gloriously risen; but later, because you had seen him, you exclaimed: ‘My Lord and my God!’ According to an ancient story, you rendered most powerful assistance for constructing a church in a place where pagan priests opposed it. Please bless architects, builders, and carpenters that through them the Lord may be honored.”  

— Prayer to Saint Thomas the Apostle, patron saint of architects 

He did something no one else has done. He founded a classical school of architecture in the modern age. To the extent that he revived the teaching of classical architecture in America, he also revived the practice of sacred architecture in the world. The two are intertwined, as they have been throughout history. The revolutionary dean of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture from 1989 to 1998, Thomas Gordon Smith was on a mission to create a new renaissance of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and he had much success. 

Thomas was my friend, mentor, and dean, as he was to so many others. Knowing him enriched my work and my life. I think he taught those of us blessed to know him five things:

First, the classical architect must be immersed in history. To employ the classical language of architecture is to engage with history, to learn from it humbly, and even to compete with it. Thomas was an extremely well-read architect who counted among his friends scholars of all types, especially architectural historians (some of whom are featured in this issue).

Second, the classical architect is an artist. He should love to watercolor, to fresco, and to sketch all things visual, especially buildings, but also landscapes and people. Thomas designed in sketchbook to scale with miniature rulers and triangles, which allowed him to design when he was traveling and in faculty meetings. He filled scores of black sketchbooks with plans, perspectives and, his specialty, three-dimensional sketches of brickwork. Fostering the Renaissance ideal of architect as artist means including the figure and iconography as part of architecture. With Thomas I think of his many muses, or personifications, that he included in his drawings and buildings: the eight winds, the seven virtues, the lady architectura and the holy women and men of faith.

Third, the classical architect loves Rome and sees it as a second home. In his early years at Notre Dame, Thomas traveled to Rome every year to visit the School of Architecture, to tour the students around his favorite buildings, and to bring patrons to the eternal city. Rome is a city of layers, of architectural excellence inspired by and built on top of the past. Thomas loved most of it, particularly the antiquity of Augustus and Hadrian, the high Renaissance of Bramante and the sculptural buildings and interiors of Bernini and Borromini. More than any other city in the world, Rome’s culture fostered the continual reinvention of art and architecture while Rome’s faith produced saints, martyrs, devotions, and the constant rebirth of the Church.

Fourth, the classicist looks for mentors from the past and seeks to apply their lessons today. Thomas spent almost fifty years learning from such disparate architects as Vitruvius and Borromini and Palladio and Asher Benjamin. Most of his buildings included aspects from all of them: Greek orders, thermal windows, empire furniture, Baroque details. It may seem eclectic, but Thomas saw their interconnectedness across the centuries. He challenged the rest of us to embrace these teachers or find our own. Thomas was much like the spiritual director who encourages his charges to find and emulate the lives of the saints.

Fifth, the classical architect lives a classical life. Love of the Great Tradition drew Thomas back to the Catholic Church, strengthened his commitment to marriage and children, and fostered his passion for people, dinners, music, and dancing. Classical culture led Thomas to learn to play the harpsichord, to love Latin liturgy, to count composers and musicians as friends, and to sponsor classes in nineteenth- century dancing for the students.

Thomas was a board member and early supporter of this journal, Sacred Architecture. He promoted the revival of ecclesiastical architecture through conferences, exhibitions, essays, and most importantly through his wide-ranging architectural practice. We thank his friends, both architects and scholars, for supporting his mission to revive the classical language and thank his patrons for giving him the opportunity to build sacred architecture anew. 

We dedicate this issue of Sacred Architecture to this friend and mentor who, like his patron Saint Thomas, constructed beautiful churches in places where the pagans opposed it. 

Well done, good and faithful servant.