Saturday, September 09, 2006

Thomas Gordon Smith named Chief Architect of U.S.

From the Society of St. Barbara, quoting the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):
The federal agency that builds courthouses, border stations and other federal buildings is set to name a new chief architect, a move that could usher in a return to a more traditional type of architecture in the government's $10 billion construction program.

The General Services Administration has selected Thomas Gordon Smith, an architect based in South Bend, Ind., according to several people who have been informed of the decision.

Mr. Smith is best known as a practitioner and promoter of traditional architecture that finds inspiration in Roman temples and palaces. His portfolio includes religious buildings in the Midwest, homes and the renovation of a building at the University of Notre Dame, where he served as chairman of the architecture school from 1989 to 1998. Mr. Smith said he is "delighted" about the appointment, but declined to comment further until the GSA makes an official announcement. A GSA spokeswoman declined to confirm the appointment.

The chief architect office is considered one of the most prestigious positions in the field of building design. It will oversee $1.6 billion of construction this fiscal year and has a long-range plan that includes around $10 billion of projects. Federal buildings are often the most prominent in town.

The previous chief architect, Edward A. Feiner, retired in January 2005, and the position has remained unfilled since. Through his "design excellence" program, Mr. Feiner recruited prominent as well as cutting-edge architects, including Richard Meier, Thom Mayne and Robert A.M. Stern. Mr. Feiner, now with architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, declined to comment.

Many, though not all, of the projects under Mr. Feiner eschewed the classical tradition of white marble and columns common in pre-World War II federal architecture. In its place are buildings such as Mr. Mayne's futuristic San Francisco Federal Building, a metal-clad rectangular structure.

Mr. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and well known for embracing classical architectural traditions while tolerating modern ones, called Mr. Smith "a wonderful choice," though one that will "probably get a lot of people crazy." He says Mr. Smith has "a strong point of view, and that's great." Mr. Stern adds, "But he has the capacity to shift and manage his position without closing the door to others."

Others are worried federal architecture will lose its cutting-edge focus. Henry Smith-Miller, of Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, a New York firm, which designed a border station under construction in Champlain, N.Y., said he finds Mr. Smith's appointment "deeply troubling." He called Mr. Smith's traditional views "anti-progressive." It "picks up the imperial nature of Roman architecture, which was in service to the empire rather than service to democracy," says Mr. Smith-Miller.
This criticism is false, however. According to Veritas et Venustas:
[Architect and American President Thomas] Jefferson thought that Classical architecture was the perfect model for democratic architecture and the American Republic. His design for the Virginia statehouse was based on a Roman temple in Nîmes, a building he was thrilled to see when he was our Ambassador to France. His design for the University of Virginia was based on Classical pavilions which used different Classical orders as models for the students at Virginia. Jefferson thought that Classicism promoted virtue.
This indeed is the architecture of democratic Athens and the old Roman Republic, as well as the humanism of the Renaissance. Modernism, however, is the archtecture of Socialism, amoral social control, and of centralized concentration of power.

Thomas Gordon Smith is a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Nortre Dame, a school which pioneered the return to architectural tradition. Smith is a practicing Catholic and has several noted church designs.

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