Thomas Gordon Smith: An Appreciation

Architecture is an art, a craft, a practical necessity.  Sometimes, architecture is man’s grandeur writ large: Saint Peter’s Basilica, The Parthenon, Taj Mahal, Le Mont-Saint-Michel, The Pantheon.  Sometimes architecture is foolishness scribbled everywhere: The Guggenheim, Dancing House, Niterói Contemporary, Le Centre Pompidou, The Gherkin.  Lately, the art of architecture has been an absurdity worthy of Jonathan Swift, as I’ve no need of telling you.  Yes, we are progressively foolish, no matter the cost. Thomas Gordon Smith: An Appreciation.

Architecture was not always the playpen of preening architects and the fawners who fund them.  At one time, in the memory of some yet living, architecture was serious, the work of ennobling man, a divinely souled creature created in the image of God.  Times change, things change, people change, especially in recent generations when children were encouraged to “change the world”.  God save us from the children.  No one should be surprised that now the world is a childish place, that architecture resembles the scribbles and crumbles of children, that childishly architects make fists at the world, stick-out CAD programs, stamp feet and red-faced demand attention.  Yes, we have spoiled the childish architect.  See, we refrigerator-door the little geniuses in hope they will grow to make us proud.  We should know better.  A brat is a brat, no matter that we grant the brat a degree and credentials.


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Temple of the Wings 2

Temple of Wings, interior (circa.1915), Shipounoff Collection, BAHA Archives.

Mature architects, reasoned and humble, are rare.  Thomas Gordon Smith was among the few mature architects who ennobled man by respecting God, as a father respects and ennobles, and by example leads.  You might say, “Thomas Gordon Smith fathered a generation of excellent architects”, and in saying, you would be correct.  More correct: Thomas Gordon Smith participated in the honorable Classive Tradition, a tradition of mind, rather than a tradition compassed by time.

By nature, Thomas Gordon Smith (TGS) was inspired to architecture in his native California, Berkeley, land of Bernard Maybeck, where when 14 he saw the beguiling “Temple of the Wings”.  And how not: 34 heroic Corinthian columns that blossom from the stone of earth, rise in reason and beauty to create a home suitable to a noble creature, a child of God.  This home, this Temple of the Wings, was designed for Florence Treadwell Boynton (1911), acolyte of the Classive dancer, Isadora Duncan.*  Difficult to believe, yet, in the early 20th Century of Christ’s ministry, Berkeley, California was identified, “Athens of the West”, and was yet something of an Athens when TGS was there a student of art and architecture, Undergraduate and Graduate.

Sebastian Le Clerc Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus 1684 from Vitruvius on Architecture by Thomas Gordon Smith.

Sebastian Le Clerc, “Vitruvius presenting De Architectura to Augustus”, 1684, from “Vitruvius on Architecture” by Thomas Gordon Smith.

When coming into his craft, you might say that TGS kept good company in Michael Graves, Alan Greenberg, Charles Jencks, Leon Krier, Charles Moore, Robert A.M. Stern, and David Watkin, which is true.  More true, and rather more important, TGS kept the company of Francesco Borromini and other masters of the tradition under whom he apprenticed, imaginatively.  In the craft of pictuary, the practice of studying under a master long passed is common.  An apprentice might copy the master’s engraved drawings, or the master’s paintings which could be found in museums, a practice I am sure you have seen, a practice in architecture uncommon, mostly lost.  Alike a young, Old Master, apprentice architect TGS put himself to measuring, to copying buildings in drawing, a practice again common since TGS shared this technique of apprenticeship with his students, and these students with theirs.  In such a way, the Classive tradition in architecture has been stitched back together, line by line.

Leonardos Vitruvian Man detail.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”, detail.

When living masters are not at hand for conversation, criticism and appreciation, the blessing of books will bring a master to life in word and image, and since mind is immaterial, as is language, improving conversations can be closely had over great distances of time and space.  Vitruvius was a close friend of TGS.  You might remember Vitruvius, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (circa 80–70 BC – after c. 15 BC) Roman architect whose treatise, De architectura**, got a good start in dedication to Octavian, Augustus Caesar.  A brief description of De architectura might be serviceable.

“The Ten Books of Architecture” details in its book-chapters ten subjects of study for architects, town-planning, architecture and engineering; building materials; the Order of temples; civic and domestic buildings; the mechanics of central heating, surveying, de-watering, et cetera.  There is much that has risen to you from De architectura, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, the whole of architectural practice since the Classive supremacy (the Renaissance), and TGS’s edition of De architectura, published by The Monacelli Press, 2004.   Thomas Gordon Smith: An Appreciation.

Other friends to TGS who offered improving influence, Father George Rutler, a fellow Fellow of the America Academy in Rome whose rebirth in Catholic faith served as model for TGS’s rebirth into a deep understanding of the Roman Catholic Liturgy, the meaning and structure of Catholic architecture.  In communion, TGS created churches and monasteries true to Catholic tradition, a tradition renewed by Smith and former students, those who are remodeling the old George-Jetson churches into catholic houses of worship, as in Father Mathias’ renovation of my family’s Brighton parish, Saint Patrick, Brighton, Michigan.

Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary Denton Nebraska Thomas Gordon Smith architect.

Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, Denton, Nebraska, Thomas Gordon Smith, architect.

There are houses for God, and there are houses for men, and each is designed for the occupant’s unique wants, particular needs.
  Curious: you will notice that TGS’s ecclesiastical architecture speaks Roman Latin, that his domestic architecture speaks Greek, sometimes of the Athenian, Attic dialect, though always with that Berkeley, Temple of the Winds accent.  And something more that might profit you to notice: the domestic form chosen by Smith to house a family is not the plain, pedestrian house common in Athens, it is the grand, Athenian temple form, high and rare.

A house interior Thomas Gordon Smith architect.

A house interior, Thomas Gordon Smith, artist and architect.

With knowledge in forethought, or by Tradition’s knowledge, TGS designed temples within which a family might grow to live fully in the experience of art, to be enlarged, to be blessed.  Living fully in the experience of art is an American practice you will recognize in Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, in George Washington, in Augustus Saint Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, et alia, in Isadora Duncan and her many acquaintance, Florence Treadwell Boynton, for instance, an artist who at the Temple of the Wings recognized herself to be a 5th Century BC Athenian American. **  Alike these, TGS has led several American generations back to our roots, to our home in the Classive tradition, to a community of artists that will again make architecture the noble place of souled man.

A brief note before redirecting to The Studio Books, Annals, where this appreciation will soon be published in whole, along with other essays in “Works of the Eminent Classive American Artists”.  My association with TGS was limited, brief.  First, when in Chip Warren’s studio where TGS visited to critique; second, in conversations toward developing an architectural Order unique to AEGEA; third, in my improvement by student friends of TGS, among whom, Christine Franck, first Notre Dame student of TGS, who with me developed a curriculum for a planned school of the allied arts, The Classical Academy, Alexandria, Virginia; and then, I have a small TGS drawing.


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Classical Architecture Rule and Invention by Thomas Gordon Smith

Classical Architecture, Rule and Invention, by Thomas Gordon Smith.

* From the home’s commemorative plaque: In one of Berkeley’s more eccentric experiments in living, Charles and Florence Boynton built their family residence as a version of a Greco-Roman temple with no walls. Two circular, open air porches were ringed by 34 concrete Corinthian columns. Canvas shades were hung between the columns in bad weather. A curving roof formed the building’s “wings,” and a central open terrace served as a stage where Mrs. Boynton, a girlhood friend of Isadora Duncan, taught generations of dance students.  The Berkeley Fire of 1923 burned all but the columns and the home was rebuilt with more conventional rooms. It was remodeled again after the Boynton family sold it in 1994.  Bernard Maybeck/A. Randolph Monroe, Architects, 1911; Edna Deakin/Clarence Dakin, Architects, 1924.

**For another example of an artist living in art, see “Works of The Eminent Classive American Artists: William Girard”.

And this note: Berkeley, California is named for Bishop George Berkeley.  Also named for Bishop Berkeley, Berkeley University that in typical Woke censorship has unnamed some half-dozen of its buildings, buildings admired, studied by TGS.  A favorite quote from Berkeley: “All men have opinions, but few think.”

An extended version of this essay can be found at The Studio Books’ Website, Works of The Eminent Classive American Artists: Thomas Gordon Smith.


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