The High Game of Classicism

by Craig Hamilton, appearing in Volume 40

Thomas Gordon Smith was interred in one of the mausolea he designed in Cedar Grove Cemetery at the University of Notre Dame. Credit: Matt Cashore

I recall very well a freezing cold day in 2014, with snow thick on the ground, viewing with Thomas Gordon Smith his newly built courtyard of cinerariums in the cemetery at Notre Dame. The references to Michelangelo’s work in the early sixteenth century at San Lorenzo in Florence were obvious and it cheered me enormously to see this influence extending to another corner of the world.

It also confirmed that Thomas and I shared an interest not only in Michelangelo’s architecture, but also the broader idea of what Lutyens called the “high game” of classicism: the manipulation of the orders to create something at once familiar and fresh—a surprisingly difficult thing to achieve in general, let alone in the design of sacred architecture.

This brief article, a tribute to Thomas Gordon Smith, is written by a practitioner, not a scholar or intellect, from experience garnered by looking at the work of great architects and by endless hours spent on the drawing board.

Liberated Forms

Michelangelo’s work in the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo in Florence is an appropriate place to start. In this room the “rules” of Renaissance architecture, as interpreted from the remains of antiquity, were subtly liberated, with a re-invention of the canonical forms.

Close study of the mouldings employed in this room, for example, quickly establishes that there is a high degree of improvisation brought to play. Not only are the mouldings mischievous, but the well-known architectural elements such as columns, consoles, and entablatures are all treated with a free abandon that is a re-imagination of the tradition hitherto accepted as the classical canon.

Michelangelo was not the first to improvise in this way. Iktinus took similar liberties with the Greek canon of classical architecture in his sacred temple high in the Arcadian mountains at Bassae. This re-imagining of traditional architecture occurs every so often through the centuries in the history of sacred architecture. We find it in the sacred work of Borromini, Hawksmoor, Bentley, Lutyens, Plečnik and even Comper, to name only a few.

Ninian Comper writes about this in his 1947 essay titled “On the Atmosphere of a Church,” which was republished recently in this magazine. He describes how “the temple here on earth…has developed or added to itself fresh forms of beauty and, though it has suffered from iconoclasts and destroyers both within and without, it has never broken with the past.” He goes on, “the purpose of a church is not to express the age in which it was built or the individuality of its designer. Its purpose is to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.”

What he describes is, I think, the evolution of traditional architectural forms and ideas as they are adapted to the liturgical needs of the time. Despite what he says about the individuality of the designer, no one can deny the readily identifiable authorship of a Comper church, or one by Michelangelo or Lutyens, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sacred architecture by these artists is characterised by a delight and joy in the virtuosic manipulation of traditional form but without ever sacrificing the unity of the architectural space or what Comper describes as the “atmosphere” of the church.

That seems to me to be the genius of these architects and perhaps has something to do with improvisation without a total abandonment of a pre-ordained order. In fact, it is often the subtle tension between rule and invention in a great sacred space by one of these masters that is so important. The joy of invention cannot be appreciated without the constant reference to the rule that is being subverted. This is not only evident in the crypt which was all that was ever built of Lutyens’ great classical Catholic cathedral for Liverpool but also in Giles Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Anglican cathedral which stands a little distance away in the same city.

Tradition and Rule

Improvisation or reinvention in classical or traditional architecture cannot of course be attempted until a thorough understanding of the “rule” has been gained. In the words of Comper, “Knowledge of tradition is the first requisite for the creation of an atmosphere in a church.” Only once this knowledge has been gained and thoroughly absorbed can the so called “rules” be applied or manipulated.

Learning to improvise in traditional architecture perhaps requires a little courage as well and this courage can be gained by studying how others have gone about this process. Looking at a different discipline, such as music, might be informative as well; for example, one could examine the way in which Handel or Bach plundered the work of others and their own earlier “inventions,” or the way in which folk music was re-imagined in the early twentieth century.

A certain degree of detachment from the conventionally perceived architectural forms is also a benefit in dealing with this “game” of architecture. By this, I mean trying to see the forms, such as the orders, as “shapes” rather than as objects that cannot be altered. In sacred architecture forms often have symbolic meaning and these have to be thoroughly absorbed and understood before one sets about the improvisation process because they too need to be temporarily “forgotten” while the process unfolds.

Alexander Stoddart, the great neo-classical sculptor with whom I have collaborated on several new chapels, tells the story of how he worked in almost a trance on the first bozzetto of his seated figure of Christ for the Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham. The small clay model arrived, fully formed, during this period of trance-like work without him being consciously aware of what had happened. It is this kind of detachment in the design process that seems to benefit improvisation and perhaps can only be achieved once a deep understanding of a tradition has been gained and once one can give up on self-consciously trying too hard.

“Childlike game-playing” is perhaps an analogy that can describe this, and one thinks of Lutyens’ endless doodling where he effortlessly transformed the letterhead of the P&O steam liner company into a rampant tiger. This process can perhaps also benefit from being open to the happy accidents that sometimes occur when a design is on the drawing board. These might be described as uninvited or unexpected guests and they often bring surprising solutions if they are welcomed in.

Symbolic Narrative

The symbolic narrative or content in a sacred work of art or architecture also provides wonderful opportunities to unlock fresh interpretations. The dedication of a church to a particular saint or saints introduces a treasury of ideas that can be developed.

Church of the Sacred Heart in Prague by Jože Plečnik. Credit: Ledl

A wonderful example is that of Plečnik’s Church of the Sacred Heart in Prague where on the exterior the pattern of projecting bricks alludes to an ermine coat and where the three great portals on the west entrance resemble priests’ robes. These ideas were possibly derived from Gottfried Semper’s treatise on the origins of architecture being the cloth tent and Plečnik has improvised freely on this initial kernel of an idea. And so, we find in sacred architecture in particular a rich vein of material on which to improvise and find forms that are at once fresh and familiar.

The classical language is wonderfully diverse, having benefitted from endless variations over so many centuries and invention within this overall framework remains boundless. In Christian sacred architecture, symbolic narrative is equally abundant, and so the combination of these layers of tradition provides ongoing rich pickings for the designer of sacred architecture. If this tradition can remain unbroken and continuous, we can look forward to many more new churches where, on crossing the entrance threshold, we can continue to feel that we are entering, as Comper says, “none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.”

Thomas Gordon Smith demonstrated in all that he did his love of these ideas in sacred and secular architecture, underpinned by a very deep understanding of the tradition. His own house in South Bend is a joyful demonstration of his delight in rediscovering and reinventing the classical language in a way which is full of fresh wit and humor.

His legacy lives on in his architecture, publications, and the huge number of students whom he taught and inspired and who will refresh and renew the tradition in the years to come.