The Dance of Rule and Invention

by Steven W. Semes, appearing in Volume 40

Design by Thomas Gordon Smith for a Chapel of Saint John Vianney in Rome.

Thomas Gordon Smith, who died at age seventy-three on June 23, 2021, was an architect and teacher who over the course of his career inspired two generations of designers and scholars to pursue the revival of classical architecture as a corrective for the failings of the contemporary built environment. More than this, his work represents the spiritual journey of an artist with “an irrepressible attraction to beauty” and a deep devotion to his religious life. 

It is no accident that he flourished in the Catholic milieu of the University of Notre Dame, or that a rebirth of classical architecture occurred there under his leadership. For Thomas, the classical tradition was the natural language of the Church and the native tongue of all who strive for richness of meaning in art and architecture. 

Thomas’ Next Step

Thomas began his career at the height of what he would later call the “necessary adolescence” of post-modernism. His mentors—including Paolo Portoghesi, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Charles Moore, Robert Stern, and Robert Venturi—were among those seeking an escape from the emptiness of High Modernism. They tentatively approached but stopped short of embracing the classical language of architecture, except in abstract terms. 

While they tentatively reintroduced aspects of ornament and sought an alternative to the “open space” of Mies van der Rohe by reclaiming the traditional idea of geometrically ordered rooms, they were not prepared to articulate those rooms with the systems of mouldings, columns, or decoration derived from the classical tradition. Similarly, their allusions to historic styles remained intentionally superficial, “signs and symbols” rather than integral elements of construction. 

Thomas took the logical next step, dressing his volumes and spaces in figures, elements, and colors drawn from the classical vocabulary, handled with a freedom that revealed its modernity. His eclectic, colorful, and engaging designs (such as the Matthews Street House in Berkeley, 1978, or his own home, Richmond Hill House, 1983) dared his contemporaries to leave abstraction and irony behind and embrace the spirit of the classical, not as an antiquarian exercise or an ironic commentary, but as a celebration of forms, colors, and dynamic geometries ordered by a formal syntax. 

His drawings and plans had a graphic quality that linked them with Venturi and Stern, but his paintings and renderings show a spontaneity and faux-naïve pictorial quality that is entirely his own. He had earned a Bachelor of Art in painting at the University of California at Berkeley prior to receiving his Master of Architecture there in 1975.

Spiritual Content

In 1979, Thomas won a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. There he studied the architecture, painting, and sculpture of the Renaissance and Baroque, particularly the designs of Michelangelo and Borromini, and sought the guidance of art historians Joseph Connors and John Beldon Scott. Among the fruits of this study was his design for a new chapel dedicated to Saint John Vianney for an infill site along the Via Giulia in Rome. 

Thomas’ unbuilt design employs the axial geometry, controlled vistas, and sense of expansive space gleaned from the seventeenth-century masters, using these in the service of spiritual content, including an iconographic program developed by Father George Rutler and Scott. Three axes define the geometric configuration: The first links the entrance and the pulpit; the second connects the ambulatory and the baptistery/confessionals; and the third aligns the sacristy, altar, and Eucharistic chapel. Thomas here unites in one compact composition two of the principal themes of the baroque church: the unity of the arts preached by Bernini and the “scenographic” coordination of axial movement and views noted by Rudolf Wittkower in his Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600 to 1750

Interior of the Chapel of Saint John Vianney

An exposed masonry dome supported on Tuscan and Doric columns is viewed through an “ethereal baldacchino” of lightweight vaults springing from pairs of Solomonic Corinthian columns modeled after those of Bernini’s baldacchino at Saint Peter’s Basilica. The chapel presents us with a layering of space and light that recalls the multiple shells of Guarino Guarini’s domes and the transparent inner and solid outer domes of the dining pavilion at Nero’s Golden House. 

The chapel design attracted the attention of Paolo Portoghesi, who was curating the “Strada Novissima” at the Venice Biennale. This was an indoor street lined with temporary façades designed by twenty leading contemporary architects and giving entrance to exhibition spaces featuring the architects’ works. Portoghesi invited the young American to participate and Thomas’ façade was a brightly colored celebration of Roman Baroque, including those signature Solomonic columns. 

An expression of pure joy in the face of the gray abstraction that dominated most contemporary design at the time, it won him international attention. Thomas’ façade and his drawings for the Saint John Vianney chapel exhibited behind it, suggested that new architecture could recapture the artistic and spiritual qualities that many people most valued in historical architecture—not through abstract allusions but by means of a fully reinvigorated formal language. 

Baroque Power

Returning from Rome to his native California, Thomas organized the 1987 conference “The Baroque: Its Power Today,” a landmark event at the French baroque-inspired San Francisco Civic Center. In addition to mentor-architects Portoghesi, Stern, and Moore, presenters included architect Stanley Tigerman, architectural historians Patricia Waddy, John Belden Scott, and Dennis Doordan, painter David Ligare, composers Lou Harrison and Conrad Cummings, and musicologist/harpsichordist Davitt Moroney. 

The conference concluded with performances of contemporary and historic music and dance in a celebration of the baroque spirit which, for Thomas, was not an irretrievable historical moment but a living, accessible reality. The conference revealed the movement toward classical architecture as part of a broader cultural phenomenon in which artists across disciplines sought new meaning in traditional forms. 

Realizing his ambition in built work would require both scholarship and artistry, leading Thomas to an intense engagement with the history of classical architecture from Greek and Roman antiquity to twentieth-century San Francisco Bay Area masters like Bernard Maybeck. 

Along the way, Thomas pored over the historic architectural treatises, in particular that of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, whose Augustan-era Ten Books on Architecture is the sole surviving example of what was likely an extensive literature in antiquity. This scholarship and his mostly residential projects formed the core of his first book, Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention

From the outset, Thomas rejects the idea that we are separated from the past, “that our period is so unique that we should not imitate our forebears in any tangible way.” Instead, “the classical architect embraces continuity, both for the richness it gives the community and for the challenging standards it sets.” 

His embrace of classical principles and his ventures into theory are derived from study of buildings he admired. The models come first; the theory follows as a reflection on practice. Scholarship and design must flow together, each informing the other. 

As he writes: “The architects who were my spiritual mentors had not separated history from their architectural production. On the contrary, they allowed their models to structure and inspire their work in an uninhibited way. Classical architecture demands integration of these factors and must be generated not only through drawing but through belief.”

A Remarkable Book

More than thirty years after its publication, Thomas’ text retains the freshness and clarity with which he diagnosed the artistic, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of the crisis in modern architecture. It is a remarkably clear and insightful book, without ideological or theoretical pretense. His selection of models is pluralistic: archaic and classical Greek temples, the Renaissance of Michelangelo and Palladio, and the Roman baroque of Bernini and Borromini. 

The diverse views expressed in the treatises are presented as composing a literature in which each volume is a commentary on the preceding ones and each of which offers worthwhile lessons to the contemporary classical architect. Thomas notes, “Although exponents of divergent attitudes, [William] Chambers and Borromini share a place within the spectrum of classical architecture if we keep the definition inclusive.” 

His presentation of the five canonical orders, the heart of any treatise on classical design, draws on several different sources and nicely balances differences of origin, structure, character, proportion, decoration, and iconography. 

The Greek-inflected character of his presentation of the three central types—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—shows the clear imprint of Vitruvius’ Hellenistic models, but also his personal engagement with Greek ideals in the arts from the start of his career in the Berkeley Hills. 

Only the Tuscan and Composite (being of Etruscan and Roman derivation, respectively) are given an unmistakably Roman form and character, the Composite based once again on Bernini’s use of this order in his baldacchino. The dialogue between Greek refinement and Baroque expressiveness enlivens the entire book but is also evident in much of Thomas’ subsequent design work, in which all the “contradictions” of his sources confront one another and yet find acceptance.

The core argument of the book is the necessary interplay between rule and invention. The former is expressed in models and paradigms that illustrate the best that great artists have achieved in the past. Smith writes, “Despite attempts to define standards, none are immutable. Models are established that initiate only a fleeting synthesis.”

He explained: “Once the paradigm is applied to the problem at hand, its form must be altered to accommodate the constraints of reality. As one becomes increasingly literate, more rigor is required to choose standards because one has more choices from which to select. Paradigms impose limitations as well as provide inspiration. We are never liberated from them because they are not only resources, but they also become the standard against which new work is evaluated.”

Ideal and Real

On the other side of the equation, invention allows us to adapt the ideal to the real but “most importantly, invention is used to achieve rhetorical effect. To be effective, expression must incorporate three interrelated principles—character, iconography, and spectrum.” Character provides a general concept, “iconography offers the potential for buildings to communicate literal ideas,” and use of different orders in the same composition creates a spectrum of expression, or one may find a spectrum even within a single order. 

The aesthetic challenge is to manage the sometimes diverging claims of rule and invention: Thomas confesses his struggle at times to keep them in balance, fearing that increasing the presence of the former would reduce the liveliness of the latter. But with practice, the architect finds a syntax that allows invention to flourish while consolidating meaning. The interaction of rule and invention is not a dialectic but a dance.

Frame for El Greco's Assumption at the Art Institute of Chicago

A realized, thoroughly classical design related to a religious theme from this time is Thomas’ monumental frame for El Greco’s Assumption at the Art Institute of Chicago (1987). He produced it during his brief sojourn at the University of Illinois, at the invitation of Stanley Tigerman. 

Thomas recalls the painting’s original role as the principal altarpiece of a baroque church in Toledo, Spain, by placing it in an aedicular frame consisting of a Roman fornix motif (a pair of columns flanking an arch and supporting an entablature) rising above the suggestion of an altar below. The frame, over twenty feet tall, was embellished with hand-carved Corinthian capitals and imbricated laurel leaves in the frieze. 

Thomas’ vision, in collaboration with the curatorial staff of the time, was to recreate at least in part a sense of the setting for which the painting was created. Sadly, following a 2017 restoration, the painting has been de-contextualized, installed in a simple frame and isolated on a gallery wall.

To Notre Dame

In 1989, Thomas was invited to take charge of the architecture program at the University of Notre Dame, transforming its curriculum into one grounded in the classical tradition. In this academic environment he shifted his research to a deeper study of Vitruvius, producing his second book, Vitruvius on Architecture.

It was principally an emendation of five of the original ten books by Latin scholar Stephen Kellogg of the 1914 English version of Morris Hickey Morgan, incorporating recent scholarship and updating Morgan’s late-Victorian prose. Thomas contributes a scholarly introduction reflecting a vision of the classical from his contemporary viewpoint as both a teacher and practitioner. Collaborating with renderer Aaron Rosenshine, Thomas presents a striking and beautiful visual accompaniment to the text.  

The ancient author himself argued for a Renaissance—a rebirth of the architectural values of “the ancients”—based on models that were up to 300 years old when he wrote about them. This pattern of looking back in order to reestablish the way forward would be repeated many times in the ensuing centuries. Indeed, the classical tradition consists, more than anything else, precisely in this continuing series of renaissances, of Arcadian retrospections in response to an intermittent sense of having lost the way.

Thomas especially highlights the latitude that Vitruvius offers in response to the different conditions under which buildings are seen, acknowledging that the orders are not fixed objects but must be designed for each use. As in spoken or written language, context is everything. Vitruvius offers adjustments depending on the height of the columns, the conditions under which the structure is viewed, or to which deity a temple is dedicated. 

While teaching at Notre Dame, his design practice expanded and diversified, assisted by an able staff and his wife Marika Wilson Smith, whose contributions to his success cannot be underestimated. Especially as the practice grew, Marika’s management of the business operation, contracts, employees, and consultants provided the continuity and support that made the firm a true collaboration between them. 

Thomas made designs for Bond Hall, a renovation and addition to the University’s classical former library to house the School of Architecture. He designed its new central reading room, topped by a coved, skylighted ceiling supported by four massive Greek Doric columns. The inscription on the rear façade of the addition, taken from Vitruvius, reminds students of the necessarily interdisciplinary character of the architect’s education and calling.

Thomas’ Evolution

Gradually, Thomas’ work moved away from the baroque and the free-style classicism of the early years toward a more scholarly approach that also showed a growing confidence in the handling of materials and detail. 

For his family’s home in South Bend, Indiana, dubbed Vitruvian House, Thomas drew on the symmetriae of Vitruvius for the design of his Ionic diastylos in antis façade, but supplemented this knowledge with lessons from Palladio and mid-Western Greek Revival houses of the 1830s and 40s. In the central vaulted salon, Thomas painted frescoes of historical architects and their patrons, depicting them with respect and wit. The house also reveals a contrast between the lovingly carved Ionic columns of Indiana limestone framing the pedimented entry portico and the inventive frieze on the two wings representing triglyphs and metopes in glazed bricks of different colors. 

Perhaps it was his study of Vitruvius’ Hellenistic taste that led him to embrace the beauties of ancient Greece and their reprise in the “Grecian” style of early nineteenth-century America. The style was exemplified by Colonnade Row, the magnificent set of historic townhouses behind a screen of stately Corinthian columns that graces Lafayette Street in Manhattan. Thomas studied and advocated for the conservation of this landmark ensemble which remains threatened with further losses.

The Greek Revival in architecture also opened up an appreciation for the furniture and decorative arts of the period, culminating in Thomas’ redesign of the American Decorative Arts galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Perhaps he felt that this tradition was more rooted in American experience and would provide a more direct route back to the classical tradition than the Roman baroque. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska

After a series of projects for churches in the 1990s and early 2000s exploring different aspects of the classical language, a decisive turn comes with two projects for religious communities that occupied Thomas’ last years of practice: Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary near Lincoln, Nebraska, (completed in 2010) and Our Lady of Clear Creek, a Benedictine monastery in Hulbert, Oklahoma (begun in 2003 and still under construction). Both projects are based on the medieval monastery type in which church, refectory, library, and other common spaces are grouped around cloisters lined with ambulatories. 

The Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska

In the case of the seminary, this was itself an exercise in “invention” in which the monastic model was adapted to the needs of the seminary, which had no historical model of its own. At the clients’ request, both projects embody a Romanesque style in which simple geometries based on semicircular arches and vaults organize the composition three-dimensionally. As Thomas noted in a 2002 lecture, the Romanesque “resonates in people’s minds with what the model or paradigm for a church should be.” In the case of the monastery, the architecture also refers to the community’s twelfth-century mother house, the Abbey of Fontgombault in France. 

Both projects are austere, rather Cistercian in character, but still eclectic. The seminary’s refectory recalls the salone of an unadorned Palladian villa. 

The completed monastery, far from the “paper architecture” of forty years ago, was at the Abbot’s insistence designed to last for a thousand years. There is little decoration, except for the sculptural enrichment provided at strategic points designed and executed by Thomas’ son Andrew Wilson Smith in a neo-Romanesque style that perfectly complements his father’s robust architecture. While the style may seem far from the fully articulated classical language in Thomas’ other work, the spirit—if not the letter—of Vitruvius lived on in Romanesque Italy and France: indeed, we owe the survival of his text to monastic scribes dating back to Carolingian times.

Expressive Building

In one of Thomas’ last projects, a small chapel for Saint Vincent de Paul parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, his drawings show the body of the chapel in a kind of miniaturized and unadorned Romanesque, reminiscent of the Fuentidueña Apse at The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At the center of the front façade is a modest doorway framed by a series of concentric semicircular arches whose stepping profile points to numerous medieval examples, but also to Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan. 

The chapel and the mausoleum at Cedar Grove Cemetery adjacent to the Notre Dame campus—now the architect’s final resting place—reveal the same attention to handcrafted masonry that first appeared in the side wings of Vitruvian House and give such tactile presence to the seminary and monastery as well.

As his opportunities to build increased, Thomas moved inexorably toward a realization—visible also in the side elevation of Borromini’s Oratorio of the Filippini in Rome—of the expressive capacity of building construction itself. 

Rule and Invention

One might be tempted to read Thomas’ architectural production in a linear way as rigor overtaking freedom, or rule subduing invention. In my view, however, his career shows not so much an evolutionary development in a single direction as a set of themes that are present from the beginning and receive different emphasis at various times and places. The Romanesque was one of these perennial themes, as attested by his notes from a June 1967 student visit to the monumental cathedral at Périgueux in France. 

What does seem to increase over the years is his commitment to syntax. The compositional freedom and asymmetry of the early work becomes progressively more geometrically rigorous, and, in the end, rational space and structure speak for themselves in the unadorned masonry walls and vaults of the abbey and seminary. What remains present throughout is the tension between rule and invention and the difficult process by which the past informs contemporary work, providing both inspiration and standards for judgment.

Thomas and Marika Smith dancing at their wedding

There is a wonderful photograph of a youthful Thomas and Marika in California dancing at their wedding, their smiling faces radiant in the regulated freedom of their movements. Indeed, dance and music of various kinds was another thread throughout Thomas’ life. If Thomas’ early work resounds with the freshness of that dance, in his late works there is the deep calm of cloisters echoing Gregorian chant. 

For Thomas, the Greek dance and the Gregorian chant were not antithetical but reflected different and necessary components of the human spirit. They were, essentially, two kinds of prayer. The spiritual value of his work lies in their implied synthesis.