“There have been times when I’ve had to admit to myself that I’ve fallen in love with and learned a lot about something I used to hate! Worse than used to hate, I thought, it was beneath my dignity! That’s pretty stupid, but that’s the way, I think, we are. Original sin. Something leads us to this arrogance.”

Professor Thomas Gordon Smith: The Man who Classicized the Notre Dame School of Architecture

Professor Thomas Gordon Smith spoke of Many Canons and Many Conversions to a packed audience of undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty members in the Bond Hall Gallery on September 19 as the first in a series of presentations sponsored by the Students for Classical Architecture. “Classical Converts” is motivated by increased interest in the uniqueness and history of the classical architecture program at the University of Notre Dame.

The Notre Dame School of Architecture taught a classical curriculum until the 1950s, when the Architecture program followed the mainstream schools into a more abstract, Modernist curriculum. The students designed modern boxes for modern people. It was not until 1989, when the school’s accreditation was put on probation that the school returned to its traditional roots. In order to bring back the schools high standing, the provost and dean of the College of Engineering began to search for a new chairman to lead the school to good NAAB standing and in a more Catholic direction.

The current traditional architecture faculty is composed primarily of “Classical converts.” They are products of the 50s-80s modernist architecture schools who came to the realization that there could be more to architecture than modernism, that beauty and reason made manifest in architecture are important to create dignified towns and cities for human beings. These professors were never formally trained in classicism. They are self-taught.

Professor Smith describes his early interest in the work of Le Corbusier and Bernard Maybeck on September 19th.

Professor Smith spoke of his own discovery and embrace of Classical Architecture as well as how and why he transformed the Modernist curriculum of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture into a prestigious program of Classical Education- the only one in the Nation- influencing a new generation of architects to build traditional dignified buildings for human beings.

Professor Smith addressed the many opportunities and blessings of his career in terms of Many Canons and Many Conversions. An architectural Canon, often in the form of a written treatise, is an ordered design system of proportion and principles, such as decorum, which create a language for a particular practice of Classical architecture. Modernist architecture lacks canon. Smith defines “decorum as the correct representation of the different orders, where we get the idea of basically the iconography or the meaningfulness of the forms of each of these different types architecture and the ways in which it can be an expressive form that can be articulated in our words and our architecture.

A page from Smith’s Vitruvius on Architecture. This book promotes classical architecture today by illustrating and discussing Vitruvius, a Roman architect who wrote a prescription for the renewal of architecture 2000 years ago.

At four-years-old, Professor Smith discovered architecture when his grandmother expressed her profound dislike for Classical architecture. Smith proceeded to earn his Bachelors in Art History and a Masters degree in Architecture from Berkeley. He expressed his great fortune to have been at the school during a rare “Prague Spring” of open minds and influential people, allowing him to develop an interest in something other than streamlined modernism. This liberality was shut down a few years later by deconstructivism. During his eight-month honeymoon in Europe, Smith explored a balance of Modernist and Baroque buildings. Two months in Vicenza, studying the work of famed architect Andrea Palladio brought him to an awareness of Canon and brought him to his classical conversion.

Thomas Gordon Smith’s Matthews Street House in Berkeley. Smith’s study of classical architecture and the treatises distinguished him from most architects at the time.

Thomas Gordon Smith won the prestigious Rome prize in 1979 and spent a valuable year at the American Academy in Rome, during which time he became acquainted with and learned from the constellation of famous architects who passed through the Academy, including Paolo Portoghesi, Stanley Tigerman, Christian Norberg Schulz, and Robert A.M. Stern.

Around Christmastime, Christian Norberg Schulz, pulled Smith aside to congratulate him for being one of 20 young architects chosen to exhibit at the Venice Biennale- a prestigious exhibition of art and architecture held in Venice every two years. The theme of this particular year, also the inaugural exhibition of international architecture at the Venice Biennale, was “The Presence of the Past.” Paolo Portoghesi was the chair of the inaugural Architecture exhibition and was very interested in making the focus of the Biennale on the architecture of postmodernism. For the exhibition, Smith studied the canonical processes in Italian architectural treatises to build paper mache Solomonic columns- serpentine forms, famously supporting the baldachino at St. Peters Basilica in Rome- for his portion of the postmodern street, “Strada Novissima.”

Smith’s solomonic “Strada Novissima” exhibition at the 1980 Venice Biennale.

He journeyed through post-modernism to a more deliberate classicism and holistic architecture. In more recent years, Smith has undertaken two significant projects:  The Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, and Clear Creek Monastery for French Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault in France who are establishing a new foundation to extend the rigor and spirituality of a remarkable seat of monasticism. The deep desire of the French monks to have a Romanesque model, specifically Cistercian, brought a new conflict and a new conversion to Smith.

Professor Thomas Gordon Smith’s Cistercian inspired Clear Creek Benedictine Monastery in Hulbert, Oklahoma.

“I hated Cistercian architecture!”  Smith confessed, “then I went to visit the motherhouse in France and the prejudices evaporated. So what if Le Corbusier- that guy who inspired Richard Meier to design the worst millennial church on earth- had based his design of Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp on Cistercian Architecture.”

Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, 1954.

Richard Meier’s Millenial Church of 2000. Tor Tre Teste, Rome, Italy.

After an enlightening teaching stint at the University of Illinois at Chicago and several semesters teaching at Yale, UCLA and the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica, he happened across a call for a new Chair of Architecture at Notre Dame. The idea that Notre Dame could be a place where classical architecture would thrive was well received, though not without trepidation. The idea was really taken in and even at that time a postmodern era would not have been acceptable elsewhere. So we have been very, very blessed and it has a lot to do with the Catholic nature and faith of this university and the idea that paradigm in our personal life as well as our spiritual life goes way back.

The Vitruvian House, Professor Thomas Gordon Smith, South Bend, Indiana, 1990.

What was the response of the Notre Dame Architecture students to the dramatic change in curriculum? There was tremendous support from the provost and dean. They recognized the catholic aspect of paradigm. The new Classical program was fraught with difficulties and conflicts. The upper division students went into rebellion and encouraged the younger students to get out of the program. There were two years of very low enrollment, before the program began to build. Professor Smith started by teaching freshmen and sophomores, allowing the upper level divisions to continue the program they began.

Now, the Classical program has been growing for over two generations. Smith attributes the school’s survival and success to the existing values of the university and the architecture program, the respect for the tradition and culture, inherent in the established Rome program.

Why Classicism? Professor Smith explains, “If you’re Catholic, you may not practice as well as you idealize, as you want as you strive to, but you’re oriented and trying to achieve wholeness. Which is why [classicism] is inimical to deconstructivism, which very wickedly, absolutely wants to tear our world apart. It’s the dominant trend.”

Thomas Gordon Smith’s depiction of the five Orders.

Visit the website of Thomas Gordon Smith Architects


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  1. Diana says:

    Interesting! I didn’t realize the previous effort it took to build the program up to what it is today. Always good to learn more about our professors in their professions.

  2. Whitley Esteban says:

    Keep up the great work, guys. Very neat to hear about the origins of our program indeed!

    Always looking forward to hearing more….

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