G. E. Kidder Smith Builds
by Angelo Maggi, foreword by Michelangelo Sabatino
AR+D Publishing, August 2022
Hardcover | 8 x 11 inches | 272 pages | English | ISBN: 9781954081536 | $60.00
George Everard Kidder Smith (1913–1997) was a multidimensional figure within the wide-ranging field of North American architectural professionals in the second half of the twentieth century. Although he trained as an architect, he chose not to practice within the conventional strictures of an architecture office. Instead, Kidder Smith “designed,” researched, wrote, and photographed a remarkably diverse collection of books about architecture and the built environment. His work and life were deeply interwoven and punctuated by travel related to the research, writing, and promotion of books that sought to reveal the genius loci of the countries whose built environments he admired and wished to share with a broader audience. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s his interest in architecture led him to describe visually the architectural and historical identity of many European countries. After his far-flung travels over the decades, with his wife Dorothea, Kidder Smith focused on his own country and produced a series of ambitious books focused on the United States. Kidder Smith’s vision and narrative betray the gaze of the traveler, the scholar, and the architect.
Angelo Maggi is Associate Professor of Architectural History and History of Architectural Photography at Università Iuav di Venezia. Maggi trained as an architect at the Università Iuav di Venezia, and he obtained his PhD in Architecture and Visual Studies at Edinburgh College of Art.
Between 1950 and 1996, George Everard Kidder Smith — better known as G. E. Kidder Smith and hereafter referred to as GEKS in this review — put out a dozen books on architecture (see list at bottom), almost evenly split between Europe and the United States. Not only did GEKS write and research the books, he photographed all of the buildings that he and his wife Dorothy ("Dot") visited in their lengthy travels, the work enabled by grants from museums and other institutions. A registered architect and eventually a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, GEKS was an atypical architect who devoted his life to writing about architecture, taking photographs of buildings, and curating exhibitions; he even starred in a PBS documentary about American architecture. His published output was extraordinary considering that he and his wife basically did all of the work on the books — did I mention that he also laid out many of the books? — devoting years to research, document, and produce each one of them. As such, I'm surprised that a book devoted to his five-decade career did not happen until now, 25 years after his death in October 1997.many of his photographs have been archived at MIT, G. E. Kidder Smith Builds was written by Angelo Maggi, a professor at Università Iuav di Venezia, which is now home to the Archivio G. E. Kidder Smith. Maggi is responsible for the GEKS archive ending up in Venice, a setting that seems unlikely at first blush. In a MAS Context interview about the book, Maggi explained: "The archive was kept in his home in New York very close to the Guggenheim Museum. It was perfectly organized with all his books and many drawers containing files, photographs, and negatives." Then in December 2015, "the Smith family [...] took the decision to donate the archive to my university where I was (and I still am) a faculty member." Maggi's time with the archive resulted in G. E. Kidder Smith Builds, which is structured according to his published output (see spread below) and ends with a surprising revelation: Kidder Smith's great-uncle, Francis Hopkinson Smith, wrote and illustrated the book Venice of Today, published in 1895; in hindsight, it is something of a precursor to GEKS's output and also makes Venice a fitting location for the GEKS archive.
An Architectural Odyssey with G. E. Kidder Smith, and details on an unrealized exhibition and book initially titled (ca. 1967) The Architecture of India. If GEKS was successful with that project, he may not have shifted his energies to the US; he tried one more time, in 1990, but was unsuccessful once again.
A good deal of the information on the varied output of GEKS comes from the archives, as illustrated here and there in the book and expressed clearly in footnotes in the margins. Yet the structure of G. E. Kidder Smith Builds, which traces his career first through books and then with exhibitions, means the book is more bibliographical than biographical, even though it illuminates many aspects of his life not widely known. A biography on GEKS is yet to be written, but G. E. Kidder Smith Builds is a strong argument that one is needed.
FOR FURTHER READING (All by G. E. Kidder Smith, unless noted otherwise):
- Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old 1652-1942 by Philip L. Goodwin, photographs by GEKS (MoMA, 1943)
- Switzerland Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Native Prototypes (Albert Bonnier/The Architectural Press, 1950)
- Sweden Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Land Policy Background, Development and Contribution (Albert Bonnier/The Architectural Press, 1950; revised in 1957)
- Italy Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Native Inheritance (Reinhold, 1955)
- The New Architecture of Europe: An Illustrated Guidebook and Appraisal (World Publishing Company, 1961)
- The New Churches of Europe (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964)
- A Pictorial History of Architecture in America, 2 volumes w/slipcase (American Heritage Publishing, 1976; reprinted in single volume in 1982)
- The Architecture of the United States, 3 volumes (New England and the Mid-Atlantic States, The South and Midwest, The Plains States and Far West) (Anchor Press, 1981)
- The Beacon Guide to New England Houses of Worship: An Architectural Companion (Beacon Press, 1989)
- Looking at Architecture (Harry N. Abrams, 1990)
- Source Book of American Architecture: 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996)