I have long been fascinated by the project of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) to renew the Catholic appreciation of beauty as a means by which God calls us to Himself. And yet, at times, I have questioned whether Balthasar’s work extolling the value of beauty came at exactly the wrong time. One might have wished for a theology of beauty when our culture was adept at producing beautiful things: beautiful music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture. But our culture is more adept at simply producing things, many exceedingly ugly. Our painting, poetry, and sculpture is mostly absurd and largely forgettable, and our architects produce vast swaths of ugliness. Paint an ugly painting, and someone can quietly store it in a back room after a year or so. Build an ugly building, and people have to live with it for years and years.
The odd thing about modernism is that it has been producing mostly the same ugly product since Le Corbusier in the 1920s — roughly, in other words, for the last hundred years. And yet it is still claiming to be avant-garde, the cutting edge of a counter-culture when, in fact, modernists control nearly every art, poetry, and architecture program in the country. Modernist buildings are financed by the rich, bourgeois capitalists modernists are supposed to despise; and modernists architects have been churning out “modern” buildings for so long that they have succeeded in making cities around the world from Frankfurt to Shanghai nearly impossible to distinguish from one another.
So, did von Balthasar come at exactly the wrong time, when beauty had become a vagabond, or just in time, just exactly when he was needed most? To be honest, I don’t know, but I know we need beauty. And as much as we might wish it were different, and as much as various Catholics who have embraced artistic and architectural modernism would have people believe this is not true, little of the high art or architecture produced in the country currently could be expected to lead one to an appreciation of beauty, let alone lead one’s mind to God.
A love for classical architecture
Which is why it is an especially sad thing to note the passing of architect and educator Thomas Gordon Smith, a man who not only lamented the ugliness all around us but endeavored to make beautiful things, and to teach others to make beautiful things as well. He died on June 23, 2021, in South Bend, Indiana.
An accomplished painter, furniture designer, historian, and author, Smith is widely known for the radical re-creation of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture curriculum that began under his tenure beginning in 1989, which transformed it into the world’s foremost academic center for the teaching of classical architecture as a living tradition. Before Smith (and still in most programs around the country), modernism was simply assumed, in the same way and for the same reasons progressivism is assumed nearly everywhere in the academy now. And naturally, not only assumed, but rigorously enforced.
When as a student Smith began to be interested in classical architecture, he ran up against the phalanx of the modernist architectural establishment. “Who gave you permission to design a Doric house?” said one of his professors upon seeing one of his designs. Another dismissed him as “an applied archeologist.” The irony was that, like most modernists, both professors likely styled themselves as “pluralists,” as teachers who were helping students release their “individual creativity.”
Modernity has often devolved in this way into what Pope Benedict once called “a dictatorship of relativism.” Everything is allowed … except what is forbidden. And anything that smacks of “traditional” views of goodness, truth, or beauty is strongly discouraged. Sometimes very strongly discouraged. In modern art and architecture, “pluralism” often means yet another expression of minimalism, fragmentation, and alienation.
Thus Smith, like others of his generation, had to learn classical architecture largely on his own by reading Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture. (His illustrated edition of that work, Vitruvius on Architecture, remains one the best resources available.) The architecture critic Charles Jencks later remarked about his work at the prestigious Venice Bienniale: “Smith is the only architect here to treat the classical tradition as a living discourse.”
At Notre Dame, Smith created a program unlike any in the country to provide students the opportunity to steep themselves and train in the classical tradition. This training did not, as some critics claimed it would, turn students into drones who could only produce copies of old buildings. To the contrary, their training in the disciplined principles and techniques of classical architecture allowed these students to be even more creative. Should it have been any surprise that their buildings would look unique, fresh, and beautiful when these students had been studying the architecture of the past two thousand years rather than what the star architects had been churning out in the past fifty years?
Notre Dame’s architecture students are taught to draw and sketch first by hand, and to produce watercolor renderings that are themselves works of art; only later are they taught to use computers. The difference between hand-drawn and computer-generated designs are always readily apparent. You see a building with a certain squareness or with odd, oblique angles and straight lines, and you say “Computer … machine design.” It’s always delightful to see the computer operator copy-and- paste a few actual humans into the foreground of these building designs — usually a couple talking and someone else sitting on a bench or riding a bike — as if to say (as a bit of afterthought): “Human beings? Well, sure, they could fit themselves into this pure, geometric space — I mean, if they stand or sit very straight.”
The flawed ideals of modernist architecture
There’s no point trying to hide my metaphysical realist preferences here. If today you say, “I like classical architecture” and give reasons for it, you pretty much label yourself. I admit I used to walk through the halls of the School of Architecture occasionally just to look at the most recent drawings by the students. I would ask myself, “Why don’t people build buildings like this? Why do we have to endure so much ugliness?” One answer I hear often enough is: “You can’t build buildings like that anymore.” The professors and alumni of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture have proven that’s just not true.
As for the self-proclaimed ideals of most modernist architecture programs — pluralism, sustainability, and functionalism — if the goal is “pluralism,” can’t we allow at least one place in the country (or maybe five?) where students can study millennia-old traditions of classical architecture, including buildings that old still standing and in use? For some reason, one seems too many for too many modernists; it violates some unwritten code and just shouldn’t be allowed.
How about creating “sustainable, functional” designs? Few things are more “sustainable” than buildings that last for the next four hundred years or more rather than the next fifteen or thirty years, as has been the practice of builders for the last eighty years or so. We build and tear down at an astonishing rate. As for cost, it depends on how you price out the building. If a building lasts for four hundred years, it was cheaper in the long run than a series of buildings, each of which had to be torn down (by a happy crowd pleased to see it go), in order to build a shiny, brand new building to be torn down in thirty years by another happy crowd pleased to see it go.
And when it comes to “functional” design, let me admit my prejudice here. I prefer buildings in which I can find the doors, see out windows, locate stairs easily, stand in a foyer without getting dizzy, and navigate the hallways without a map or GPS device. I have very distinct memories of a modernist hospital building, the dull, lifeless hallways of which I was forced to tread repeatedly, and hearing a poor woman searching for her grandmother in the Intensive Care Unit shouting into her phone: “But mother, I have no idea where the hell I am!” The ICU was a few steps behind her. But she wouldn’t have been able to see it from where she was.
And then there was the modernist faculty office building in which, when I would go out into the hallway, I would frequently find some student or other wandering hopelessly through the hallways. “Can you help me?” they would plead. “I am totally lost. I can’t find this office, and I can’t even figure out how to get back to the stairs or the elevator.” “Not to worry,” I would say trying to make them feel better. “This happens a lot.”
As one commentator has pointed out, modernist buildings are often described as striking, but rarely are they called beautiful. The problem here is twofold. First, novelty wears off and then quickly becomes old hat, something held in contempt. Second, beauty is what makes places loved. And buildings must be loved if people are to maintain and care for them.
We need to feed the poor, but one important way we feed them is with beauty. Look at the places poor people go to pray when they are not prohibited from entry. They pray in beautiful churches, not white-washed, minimalist modernist ones. If we’re going to spend millions on buildings in our cities — and we do — let’s at least make them beautiful places for real people to live, not objects that express some modernist ideology of minimalism, fragmentation, and alienation.
When an architect designs a building to express his or her own creative individualism and ego rather than observing what has been described as the “countercultural ethos of ‘virtue and care for place’ based on ‘designing buildings that respect their surroundings and community, including their future inhabitants,” then it is highly unlikely that the inhabitants of the building or the members of the community at-large can be expected to sacrifice to save a building that completely ignored them, their needs and traditions, when it was designed and built.
A building that is not loved and maintained will not be sustainable, no matter how many “experts” proclaim it “one of the most important buildings of the twentieth century.” Plenty of ugly buildings have won prestigious architecture awards. Indeed, it seems to be a special requirement that a building be especially ugly for it to merit a fawning review in the pages of The New York Times.
The twofold nature of Thomas Gordon Smith’s legacy
Thomas Gordon Smith was not simply an architect who studied Vitruvius and started to build classical buildings; he attempted to create an architectural program that would take on the entire present-day architectural establishment. This was not simply a difficult task, indeed a herculean task (perhaps even a Sisyphean task), it was in so many ways a thankless task. But anyone who appreciates the renewal of classical architecture in the country, especially the renewal during the past fifteen years or so in church architecture, has Thomas Gordon Smith to thank that there are now a host of architects with the knowledge and skill to design buildings, especially church buildings, of exceptional beauty.
Anyone who has seen Duncan Stroik’s superb Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity chapel at Thomas Aquinas has seen one of the fruits of Smith’s efforts to provide a place for classical architecture to flourish. Although fewer people may have seen the remarkable seminary and chapel Thomas Gordon Smith designed for the Confraternity of St. Peter in the countryside near Lincoln, Nebraska, it is equally beautiful and impressive.
I mention these two examples, among dozens of others I might have used, to illustrate the twofold nature of Thomas Gordon Smith’s legacy that will endure.
First, he left beautiful buildings that he himself designed that will grace their inhabitants and neighbors for centuries, and that’s no small gift. But, secondly, he also created a program to help train others to build beautiful buildings, and the work of those students and colleagues will endure and grace our cities and neighborhoods for many decades. As a biographer has written, Smith “led a revolution at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture” that contributed to a classical revival by producing architects capable of traditional design at the highest level classical virtuosity.”
“In short,” he writes, “Thomas Gordon Smith was the right man, with the right philosophy, at the right time, and in the right place. Smith … a handful of visionary professors, and a steady stream of dedicated, talented students rejected … ‘handsomely appointed functionalism and the tradition of minimalist fragmentation. Instead, they embraced tradition and dared to reach for beauty.”
The title I gave this article was meant to indicate that “Beauty” was the master, and Thomas Gordon Smith was Beauty’s faithful servant. The long tradition of the church has held that when we see ourselves in this way, acting as faithful servants of the order of truth, goodness, and beauty that God has instilled in His creation, we become “co-creators” with our Creator. When we do not seek to build or make for personal, individual glory and praise; when we seek to make things with excellence to serve God and others, we glorify Him.
Thomas Gordon Smith glorified God in his life and work, and he left behind him a lasting legacy for others to appreciate and love for years, perhaps centuries. People in the distant future will come upon one of his buildings or a building by one of his students, and they will ask, “Who built this?” Likely, very few people will know. What they will know is that they have stumbled upon beauty, and they will be grateful. As should we.
Thank you Thomas Gordon Smith. May you rest eternally in the bosom of the Loving Creator of All Goodness and Beauty.
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