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.
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.
Architecture is expensive, the most expensive, more expensive than education and defense. Alike education, much of the expense has been a waste, a boondoggle for Progressive social experimenters. Well, in Progressive experiment, defense too is becoming a waste, perhaps to the cost of Liberty, at the price of defeat. All Progressive experiment has been a waste of time, energy, treasure, as I’ve no need of telling you. You see the farce that architects have made of our civilization. You know that architects are laughing as pocket-stuffed they exit banks, buildings progressively designed to resemble Self Storage Rent-a-Centers.
Architecture is a necessity that should not be trusted to Progressive architects, or to politicians, both notoriously ignorant of aesthetics. Here you might reference The Harris Poll of American’s Preferred Architecture of Federal Buildings, which revealed that in good taste American’s prefer Classive to Progressive government architecture, 3 to 1. Yes, well of course, the percentage is closer to 4 to 1, we expect Progressives to fib to skew polls for appearance and persuasion. What should be noted: the ugly classical buildings were designed by Progressive architects, approved by Progressive politicians, and hapless Republicans. As mentioned, architects and politicians should not be trusted to design the nation’s buildings, they have no taste.
Should mention: women more than men prefer Classive to Progressive architecture.*
Architecture is a craft, the most exacting, the most necessary craft; get it wrong and the roof falls-in, or leaks, as Frank Lloyd Wright’s roofs most often did. All crafts are born of tradition, monkey with tradition and you have architects climbing walls, swinging from rafters, and falling on the playground ground teeth first. Craft can be exacting, and this is why architecture schools ignore craft, hos epi to polu, and encourage students in self-expression, as are Kindergarteners encouraged to express with crayon and finger-paints. See the schoolroom pinned efforts of architecture freshmen and you will notice in the moment the similarity between college and baby-school. Little craft, big pride.
Architecture is an art, more Michelangelo than Picasso, or should be. You thought yourself safe from the horrid Picassos locked safely in museums, but they have escaped and are wildly breeding, littering Picasso children upon streets, plazas, and advertizements. And worse than little pictures and little people, architectures can be monstrously large, ravenous of the landscape, intimidating to little ladies and gentlemen who daren’t speak truth to giants.
Architecture is a tradition, an ancient tradition that holds within itself the memory of our parents and their parents before, from time out of memory. Alike language, architecture narrates the history of who we are, of who we might become. Buildings are alike words, objects of meaning. Remove meaning from words and history dies, and the present is a lie. Witness the Progressive project of altering meaning in words. Remove language from architecture and the narrative of man ceases to be. Yes, there is a Progressive tradition, the tradition of wrecking, of eliminating, of disappearing all traditions except their own. And even here tradition must be progressively remade from Progressive wreck to Progressive wreck. There has been much wrecking, much too much, and the people agree, and some few architects have exited the wreck of Progressive architecture to join with we the people. Thomas Gordon Smith is among the first to stand independent of copycat modernism, to stand with us; Thomas Gordon Smith is among the first of our time to in grandeur write humanity large.
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THOMAS GORDON SMITH
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.
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 of the past 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.
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 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 (“The Ten Books of Architecture”)**, 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.
Other friends to TGS who offered improving influence, Father George Rutler, a fellow, Fellow of the America Academy in Rome whose personal rebirth in Catholic faith served as model for TGS’s rebirth into a deep understanding of the Roman Catholic Liturgy, of 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 now 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.
There are houses for God, and there are houses for man, 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.
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’s Monticello, in the homes of George Washington, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, et alia, in the home of 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 excellent persons, Thomas Gordon Smith 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.
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The best, kindest, most agreeable and interesting people are Classives, Classives credit others, honor tradition, family, neighbors, Classives preserve what is worth preserving, test what is proposed, conserve what is valuable, and perhaps most important, Classives engender culture by inventing from wisdom, the surest way to grow health and wealth in civilization.
Vitruvian House is among the first architectural works of Thomas Gordon Smith (TGS), the house is Classive in the best sense of the term, it honors tradition, invents from wisdom, preserves inheritance, and remembers what is worth remembering.
Vitruvius, “Marcus Vitruvius Polio”, likely an architect to Julius Caesar, composed a treatise on the craft, art, practice of architecture, De architectura, “Of Architecture”, the earliest architectural treatise of Classive civilization, or any other. Vitruvius in De architectura allows a comprehensive discussion, and integration of arts and sciences, an integration that is with us yet, well, mostly. After being rediscovered in the second blossoming of the Classive (at a monastery, 1414, by the Florentine humanist, Poggio Bracciolini), the treatise effected in the best way all that would become the Second Classive. For instances:
influence of artists, alike Leonardo da Vinci, as seen in his “Vitruvian Man”;
extension of engineering wonders into our own day;
establishment of best architectural practices, the Vitruvian Triad, “Firmness, Commodity, Delight”;
inspiration of great artists to excellence (Raphael translated De architectura into Italian, 1520),
of prompting middling architects to achievement, Le Corbusier, et alia;
lending good advice though numerous translations in many editions, most recently,
Thomas Gordon Smith’s edition of De architectura, 2004.
We find in TGS’s Vitruvian House rule and invention, study and play, color and light, form and line, architectural excellence, and, well, God love him for trying, ambitious pictuary. First, the pictuary. I am put in mind, as I am sure are you, of Roman graffiti and Byzantine churches, the Byzantine is ambitiously sincere, the graffiti is artistically superior to the celebrated Basquiat, is descriptive, even auto-biographical, is deserving of consideration in a thesis or dissertation. Again, rule and invention.
Studying the exterior, we are delighted by the playfulness. You will notice that in material aesthetic the house is true to time, our time, that the antefix hold nothing back, the acroterion brags, the pilasters think themselves Tuscan, in a South Bend sort of way, that the tone is Midwest polite, the economy, middleclass, the reference, aristocratically scholarly, in the easy way that gentlemen might discuss the fine points of literary criticism the evening before the morrow’s bloody, decisive battle.
To say that the house is “unprecedented”, would not be true. Every front gabled house is precedent, Donald Wexler’s Mid-Century Moderns, Greek Revival hen-and-chickens, et cetera. What is unprecedented: courage in design, singularity of purpose, honesty before power. I have known many artists, many artist’s homes, and each home expresses personality in a way that a mere architect’s home does not, artfully easy, as upon an Empire davenport two Classive artists might share opinions over wine, figs and apples, with intelligent delight.
I find the architecture in the plan, a thing of theory, practiced. Yes, there is geometry, a complexity beyond anything a Mondrian might conceive, a something of what was popular in 1960s-70s design books, the old “unity in variety”, a variety seldom found in cookie-stamped modernisms. Then too, there are the people you see by footprint walking through the house, as Potter might see the pottering on a marauder’s map. See them there? I am sure you do, in delight as you pad through the rooms, each view awarded with some beauty or satisfying termination, each turn a discovery of the surprising expected. And there is something I seldom credit, a nonlinear passage through the day, through time: here, time is alike the constellations, or alike planets balanced eternally, each experiencing time and place in its own way, as you might experience time, if you could, on Venus or Mars or Pluto and Earth, different places where all is different, yet the same. This Vitruvian House is too a Vitruvian, different, and yet the same.
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A major architectural work is alike a major musical work, alike a symphony. A symphony is the work of a civilization, an accumulated tradition centuries in preparation. A symphony is composed by a musician, a musician expert in craft, knowledgeable of precedent, aesthetically astute, artistically brilliant, conversant of each instrument, familiar with the practice of each musician, sympathetic to a conductor who follows a script of performance, those composed hints of how best to move an audience toward ecstasy or pity, or fear. By principles, by language common to all, a musician creates a symphony.
The work of an architect is alike the work of a symphony composer, with this exception: the architect designs both the symphony (the art) and the hall (the structure) within which the symphony is performed. If either fails, the work fails. In failure, the symphony might merely be unattended, as is Pei’s Plaza in Washington, D.C. If the building fails, it might come down upon the heads of the audience, as did the roof of the Hagia Sophia. The architect has the more responsible job.
And this: the architect composes within a tradition, in a language, in a script that can be read by engineers, builders, tradesmen, et alia. An architect’s drawing is a script for the performance of a building, the creation of a work-of-art, if the architect is an artist … most are engineers, socialites, or good, solid practitioners. Once you considered being an architect? Remember: roofs fall in and original ideas are most often dumb. Hum. Probably best to reconsider. Moreso if you would presume to design a building for fellow architects and their students, each of whom has aspirations and opinions. In such a work, the roof is more likely to fall upon your head than upon theirs. That Bond Hall did not collapse upon Thomas Gordon Smith is testament to his achievement.
Smith’s work at Bond Hall incorporated most every discipline of the architect’s practice, it was a renovation, a conservation, a remodeling, an addition, and a new design in cooperation with architects, engineers, builders, artists, craftsmen and bureaucrats, and here we should be put in mind of a general at war, ordering all, responsible to all, carrying the sword. And, at Bond Hall there is a room most on target, the central atrium, a presence of the silent general, TGS himself.
Composed, massive, muscular columns in antis support a heavy Doric entablature from which springs a generous, vaulted skylight. Yes, the room is simply strong — I appreciate its lonely klismos chair—hope its yet there — it needs be nothing more. Often, the modern atrium is a waste of space created to flatter self-opinion. This modern atrium wastes nothing but excess.
The tasteful, sympathetic addition to Bond Hall features a cartouche of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, and a bust of Vitruvius. Beneath the bust, this worthy observation from the De architectura:
Architects who sought to be skilled with their hands without formal education have never been able to reach a position of authority in return for their labors; while those who relied only upon Reasoning and Scholarship were clearly pursuing the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men fully armed, have more quickly attained their goals with authority.
The Classive is a strengthening tradition. Notre Dame’s original Bond Hall was designed by Edward Lippincott Tilton (1915); remodeled into a school of architecture by Thomas Gordon Smith (1995); Notre Dame’s new school of architecture, Waslsh Family Hall, was designed by John Simpson (2019).
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BENEDICTINE ABBEY OF OUR LADY OF CLEAR CREEK
OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE SEMINARY
Romanesque architecture is Roman, late Roman, an architecture of defense, of military fortification even when a home for God, the Christian God, the God of Rome. Romans worshiped one God, by decree of Constantine I, Constantine the Great. You might like to know, Constantine’s mother was Greek; Constantine’s father was Dacian, an imperial guard and governor; Constantine was born in Dacia (Serbia), was declared emperor by his troops at Eboracum (York, England, 306 Anno Domini). You might like to know that the Roman Empire of Constantine occupied three continents, Asia, Africa, Europe, extending from the North Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, and beyond; that Christian Rome experienced cycles of civil war, that air-open Roman architecture closed-in thick and tight; that Romanesque is the foundational architecture of Christ’s church.
For ease of rule, Constantine split the Roman Empire into East and West. The Roman West was centered in Rome, Saint Peter’s city, city of the Popes. The Roman East was centered in Constantinople, Constantine’s city, city of the Eastern Roman emperors. Constantinople was Roman until 1453 when conquered by the Muslim Turks. The Founders of our nation knew Constantinople to be Roman. Byzantium, “Byzantine Architecture”, is an incongruity, a term of make-believe coined by progressivist scholars; the proper and correct term is “Eastern Roman Architecture”. Western Roman architecture, Romanesque, is not an architecture of the phantasmagorical Middle Age, Romanesque is the powerful, massive architecture of a fractured Western Rome, a Rome defensive, insular, increasingly divided, an architectural style that ascended into the European Gothic, after Islam was beaten back by Western Rome’s defense of Eastern Rome (id est, The Crusades, 1095 -1291*).
Because we misunderstand our history, we misunderstand ourselves, we misunderstand the meaning, the significance of form in architecture, of tradition and innovation. The calendar is an inaccurate, misleading organization of time. Decades and centuries do not exist. Both decades and centuries mislead, especially when presumed to have personalities, characteristics. The notion is laughable, and yet common, and compulsory. Trouble is, we presume numbers to advance, as in accumulations, additions, then we presume that time, things, and people progress. The notion that your neighbors are superior to Leonardo and Socrates because they breathe in a make-believe XXI Century is laughable. Likely, time and architecture are ordered differently than has been assumed.
A Christian conception of time supposes redemption and appointment, supposes that time is urgent, which it is, that time will end, which likely it will do, because it was made by plan to begin, as many, soon most, scientist believe … the evidence has become overwhelming. Could be, that architecture does not progress, that form holds within itself, idea, idea that grows yet does not change, so-much-as augment or diminish. Could be that forms are never outdated. Could be that form is symbiotic with idea. Forms that recur seem not to progress but to insist. Progressive forms seem to be in stasis. Classive forms seem to be in activation.
Thomas Gordon Smith’s Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Clear Creek continues the Western Roman tradition germinated of Constantine, the Roman monastic tradition, the tradition of Roman Catholic monasteries, a Roman tradition fully matured in 1100 Anno Domini. Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey is a Benedictine community settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1999), of the Solesmes Congregation, the congregation formed in response to French dechristianization, France’s seizure of church property, and the Benedictine diaspora. The Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Fontgombault (1091), in France, shares time, space, purpose with Clear Creek Abbey. Smith’s design of Clear Creek Abbey exhibits the expected, the hoped for family resemblance. And why, because time does not advance, time extends as does the Benedictine Order, the Order of the church of my youth, The Immaculate Heart of Mary. You will notice a light cleanliness at Clear Creek, an openness possible within a nation at liberty, a nation that neither wants nor needs the ponderous weight of defense, as at Fontgombault.
Smith’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary too is open and friendly, alike Monte Casino, yet without the commanding necessity of aggressive defense. Again, you will notice a friendly openness, welcoming and kind, a cultural balance to state imposed dechristianization of our Classive world, a dechristianization that state’s have pursued, sometimes aggressively, since the time of Christ’s ministry. No need to dilate upon the Christian martyrs of Rome, France, and China.
Thomas Gordon Smith’s final design, The Oratory of Saint Mary Magdalene, Fort Wayne, Indiana, was completed by William Heyer. Again, you will notice an openness, an airiness, the deft touch of an American Classive, the Classive unburdened by pomp and privilege, pretense and intense class stratification, the stratification now being reimposed by the vulgar, Progressive elite. Thomas Gordon Smith’s practice transcends progressive time, is fixed of motion, a metaphorical North Star. You will notice here a consistency of form in idea, in practice of idea, as in the practices of hermetic communities, monastaries of monks and nuns, time that is not progressive, but expansive, indifferent to fad, fashion, and the fickle frivolities of the idle.
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Born: Berkley, CA, 1948-2021
Thomas Gordon Smith reestablished the Classive tradition of architectural education in American schools, colleges, and universities. With serious play his residential, educational, and ecclesiastical buildings innovated with the Classive tradition. There is a light touch, a friendliness, a kindness in the works of Thomas Gordon Smith, a comfort with masters of the past, as though in conversation over wine.
Smith put his hand to the practice of architecture, drawing new lines of expansion and development through his many, very many protégés and students, through the architects he hired, assisted, and promoted.
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Rome Prize Fellow, Architecture, American Academy in Rome.
“Presence of the Past” international architectural exhibition, Venice Biennale, 1980.
In Private practice since 1980.
Classical Architecture: Rule and Invention, published in 1987.
Chairman, the School of Architecture, the University of Notre Dame, 1989 to 1998,
the leading school for study of Classive architecture.
Vitruvius on Architecture, published in 1981.
Ecclesiastical projects include a churchs, parish halls, and education buildings including
St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dalton, Georgia
Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Clear Creek
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary
and renovation of churches, master plans, et cetera.
Residential designs in California, Illinois, North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin, et alia.
Public projects include
Cathedral City Civic Center, California
Visitor’s Center for the Lanier Mansion Historic Site,
Bond Hall School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame
Twenty-plus museum exhibitions.
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* 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.
* Women prefer Classive architecture to Progressive architecture by 4 out of 5; men prefer Classive to Progressive architecture by 3 out of 4. This should not be a surprise. Notice that women prefer a stable, traditional house to a shifty, unconventional house.
The capstone of the Crusades was the retaking of Granada, 1492, the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue to extended Classive civilization into the Americas. Gibraltar was taken in crusade, 1462, an event that secured the Mediterranean, allowing a Christian, world exploration. America, during Madison’s presidency, defeated Islam’s Barbary pirates (1815), ending the enslavement of European Christians (1 to 1.25 million) to Muslims and curtailing the worldwide Muslim export of African slaves. Christianity has nearly ended slavery, worldwide. Columbus sailed to seek gold to continue Crusade, and found it in 500 years of American wealth production. The Crusades succeeded.
The Benedictine, Fontgombault Abbey, France, was founded in 1091, dissolved by violent atheists of the French Revolution, 1791; refounded by the Benedictines, 1948.
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.”
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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.