Founder of a Classical Bauhaus
Duncan Stroik sat down with John Burgee to discuss the life and legacy of a great colleague and friend, Thomas Gordon Smith, who passed away in June of 2021. Burgee is a well-known architect who worked for a number of decades with Philip Johnson, doing many high rises, university buildings, and performing arts centers. He is best known for the AT&T building (now 550 Madison) in New York City, along with many centers of intellectual and commercial life throughout the world. Burgee graduated from the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture in 1956 and served as a trustee on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1988 to 2004, Emeritus Trustee to 2019, and Hesburgh Trustee 2019 to present.
Stroik is a professor of architecture at Notre Dame and editor of Sacred Architecture.
Duncan Stroik: How did you first get to know Thomas Gordon Smith?
John Burgee: I first met Thomas in Venice, Italy, at the Venice Biennale in 1980. He was participating in the Strada Novissima along with other contemporary architects who were designing façades of row houses along an idealized street. I had never heard of him before that.
It included all of the young architects of that time and was a great competition because this was a chance to show each other up. They were supposedly not shown each other’s work until they got to Venice.
Thomas did something that was unlike all the others. I am sure that he was very much aware that everybody would be competing to stand out, but his intention was to show the difference between his direction, which was based on historical elements, and the others.
When I met him, he was trying to repair his façade, which had some damage in shipment, and he was anxiously trying to get it up in time. Thomas’ façade certainly stood out among all of them. It was thoughtful, not just showy.
It was very impressive, the installation entitled “The Presence of the Past.”
Then it was published and everybody saw his project. However, Thomas was not part of the in-group of New York architects. They just made fun of what he was doing and dismissed him as “not of this time.”
I thought, “You guys are wrong.” Thomas really showed how classical design could be original. Even in Venice you could see he was interested in getting his building built, and everybody else was interested in showing off.
I was immediately attracted to him because of that sincerity—he didn’t care if he met me or anybody else. He wanted his building to speak for him. Everybody else was just battling each other, trying to get the spotlight, pushing each other out of the way, as you might expect. But Thomas came off to me as the serious one.
It can be hard for us in academia to be passionate about building buildings because of the difficulty of getting clients. Thomas definitely combined his passions for teaching and history with building architecture.
Thomas was dedicated to his teaching and was excited about working with the students. However, it always seemed to me that he had great interest in having a practice. He was what I called a true full architect. Thomas was concerned with design of everything in the built environment. He had a tremendous capacity and he wasn’t interested in much outside of architecture and design that I knew of.
Right. His hobby was architecture.
I don’t think he even knew that Notre Dame was known for its great football teams.
The greatest football teams in America, and it didn’t matter to him at all. But he loved Notre Dame. What drew him here, and why did you support him in coming?
Tim O’Meara, the provost at Notre Dame, asked me about possible people to take the lead in the architectural school. I mentioned that I knew a few people, and one was Thomas. Tim said, “He is on my list.” I said, “I don’t know that he would come to South Bend. He wants to practice.” I said, “If you can get him, get him. I would leave everyone else out, I wouldn’t even talk to other people.”
Why did you say that?
I felt that strongly about him because to me, Notre Dame—and all architectural schools at that time—seemed to be floating and not really having a serious direction of any kind. Tim came back to me some time after that, and said, “You know, he teaches a certain direction of things. It’s not exactly what we’ve been doing.”
I said, “Exactly right. That’s why you want him.” To me the real reason was that, of the many architects I knew at the time at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Thomas was the true scholar. The others are known, and some of them are good teachers. Thomas was above that; he was a scholar and he was a builder, and it’s so unusual to get both. Tim took a deep breath and only said, “I see.” And Thomas ended up as head of the program.
Was it a big risk for them to do that, to pick this architect-scholar?
He was an unknown, a risk. The idea of the administration was to build the academic reputation of the institution and to avoid trouble. Change can mean trouble to administrators. It means they would have to explain and defend the changes.
Thomas’ direction was so different from what was then happening in architectural education at Notre Dame and elsewhere—and in the profession. It was a huge leap for them.
The School of Architecture is one of the smaller programs in the university, and I could understand that the provost wanted to avoid trouble. But he saw the opportunity and went ahead. Thomas was available and didn’t take a lot of convincing to come.
He was practicing in Chicago, teaching a little bit, and doing Vitruvian studies. Why bother to come to Notre Dame? It has a great football team, but it was not that well-known as an architectural school.
It was not known at all as an architectural school. I never thought he’d come, but I knew he was not very happy at the University of Illinois Chicago, and it was a dead end for him as far as academia was concerned.
In fact, I thought he was in Chicago because he wanted to practice, and I didn’t think he was going to pick up and come to Notre Dame. But he made the change. And then all hell broke loose.
Yes, tell us what those first years were like. Were they less-than-smooth sailing?
Once the faculty found out that Thomas was going to change the program into a classical program, they were afraid they would get fired, since none of them were classicists. They immediately ran to the provost’s office and complained.
It was quite a rocky period. Tim O’Meara said to me a number of times, “He’s got no support except you.” I was a long-distance advisor at best. I didn’t have that much influence. I was in a position where they would listen to me, but they didn’t have to do what I said.
It was very hard for Thomas. Whenever I’d see him in that period, he would agonize about it. He’d say, “They don’t understand…” and I would say, “Thomas, you can’t expect them to! You’re not going into a group just like you. In the first place, there isn’t anyone just like you. And so we’ll just have to tough it out.”
He had such a wonderful personality. He never wavered in his strength of direction. He never wavered in his thought of what he was doing.
No, total confidence.
And he was very patient about it. People would come to him that didn’t have near the scholastic ability he had and would lecture him. He would listen and he wouldn’t argue with them. There was no shouting and fighting, at least not that I saw. I know that he got very frustrated sometimes, there is no question. Thank God for [Thomas’ wife] Marika is all can say.
Oh yes, Marika Smith was a stalwart supporter and inspiration.
When he needed calming down, she knew it. She totally supported him but kept him out of trouble. None of us, in anything we do, can do it alone.
He needed support and started hiring people like you. He was so relieved when you came and backed him up in firmly establishing the classical program.
Some students went to the provost saying that the classical program was not why they came to Notre Dame. There was no classical school in the country at the time. Notre Dame was unique.
The international style permeated the whole world. It would be easy to take an individual like Thomas and put him aside and say he doesn’t count, and that is the way he was dismissed by many. At Notre Dame, there was a risk that somebody was going to come along and say, “The battle’s not worth it, get rid of him. We’re hearing complaints from the students, bad things from the faculty, and we’re not going to put up with it.” Thomas knew that and he didn’t waver.
It was a challenging time for about five years. After losing Thomas last June, a lot of alumni wrote wonderful things about Thomas. One of the classes that had been the most vehemently against him were some of the most appreciative. Looking back, they saw how kind he was, how much he cared, and how he respected them, even though they were strongly against the classical program.
The problem was nobody recognized it at the time. One of the things that helped, though it took a few years, was that every student that graduated got a job. When that started happening, the administration took notice. And when the other trustees heard about the success of employment, everyone said, “Something must be good about it.”
I remember in a faculty meeting there was a report of a Notre Dame alumnus who told one of the faculty, “I will never hire a Notre Dame grad.” Why not? “Because of the classical program, it makes them unusable, they can’t work for me. They will be terrible.” I heard a couple years later she hired one of the grads and said, “My mind is totally changed. That was the best person I’ve ever hired. I want to keep hiring Notre Dame grads.”
I heard from many of the firms who hired Notre Dame people, and I would ask how the students were doing. They’d say, “The students are terrific. They can think, they’re productive from day one, unlike other new hires who require about a year of training in our office.”
That’s great. The Rome program is a strength, the classical discipline is a strength, and I think of our program as being fairly practical. That is, even though it’s a design school, we do care about bricks and mortar, sizes of things, and how people actually live. Do you think that’s the kind of thing our students are good at?
Yes. I once gave an explanation of the program to the board of trustees at Notre Dame. They wanted to know about the architecture program and I tried to explain that it was a classical education. Classicism is not just pasting columns onto a building, but a study of all aspects of building, starting with the classical examples, and the details and proportions necessary to carry on this timeless design process.
Notre Dame started this classical program, which is now much more prevalent. For instance, the ICAA [Institute of Classical Architecture and Art] wasn’t there when we started this school at Notre Dame, and now the Catholic University of America, Benedictine College, Andrews University, and the University of Miami all have course work in classical architecture.
A lot of groups have sprung up, and I like to think that many of the top classical and new urbanist firms all have some of our grads. They are doing good things across the country and across the world.
This didn’t get credited enough to Thomas. He was not a chest pounder, he just did his work and sought satisfaction in the product itself. He wasn’t looking for his own credit. I always told him, “You know you’re a revolutionist.” He was a heroic revolutionist, and he won the battle.
He did win the battle, and now we have many places which allow the practice of classical architecture.
When you talk to people who are serious architects, who really think about their architecture, even if they are not practicing in the classical way, they talk about Notre Dame. They want to know about us. This was not something that just happened. Thomas made it happen.
He loved the term “radical classicism.” His focus was on going back to the root of architecture and reviving it.
I think it’s interesting that it all started in the post-modern period. People were taking classical elements and sticking them around their buildings without understanding them.
Thomas’ work stood out as the correct and reasoned classical design. It was not arbitrary.
When Notre Dame was renovating Bond Hall [the architecture building], Thomas was not being considered for the commission. But I went to the administration and I said, “You’ve got to have Thomas do it. You cannot build the Notre Dame architecture building without him.”
They thought there was a conflict in hiring a faculty member, but they finally hired him—but didn’t pay him. Thomas did a beautiful job, it is a wonderful building. It will always be one of my favorites.
Thomas took the Lemonnier Library, built in 1918, which had been economically renovated into the architecture school [after Father Hesburgh built a new library in 1963], and he totally transformed it into a proper architecture school.
It was a rabbit warren before he touched it.
You’ve been a great supporter of Thomas and of the school for probably sixty years, ever since you graduated, but especially in these last thirty years after Thomas was hired. When you were part of the architecture advisory group, did you go on some of the tours of Italy with Thomas?
I did. I went with him to the Veneto in Italy and looked at Palladian work.
One of his favorites.
He explained it all so well, and we even stayed in one of the Palladian villas.
Right, Villa Saraceno. What an amazing experience. How do you think he managed to create a new program in classical architecture at Notre Dame, one of the older architecture schools in the country, and at the same time have a small practice, design houses and public buildings, renovate the architecture school, and publish a new edition of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture? How did he manage to do all that at the same time?
That’s what I said when I first knew him. That’s a man who is a true scholar, and he devoted his total effort to it. He was working on those things while we were watching Notre Dame football games.
Right, he could have been watching football but instead he was watercoloring Vitruvius. It’s a great legacy: the academic, the scholar, the practicing architect, the author. How do we define his legacy? How should we remember him?
In my estimation, Thomas exemplified what an architect should be. He was not only a scholar, but a humanist, a person that really loved other people and how they lived.
He was truly interested in improving the way we all live, improving the environment, improving cities. I think he had a greater effect on the architectural direction of this country and of the world than anybody that I knew.
More than anybody that you know? All these great teachers, all these famous architects, all those developers?
I think it is the most thought out, far-reaching and lasting direction. You can take people like Mies [van der Rohe] and the Bauhaus, that direction was called the “international style,” but it was just the same style, applied internationally. It didn’t grow from anything except one person or one school.
I think it has not progressed over time the way classicism has. Thomas brought architectural tradition back, and I think he had a great impact on the architectural community.
Beautiful. Now that we’ve lost him, what do you think he would like us to do?
I think he would recommend the furthering of the program he started and the dedication he gave to it.
If architects would model themselves on his direction and his fortitude, I think we would move forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.