G. E. Kidder Smith Builds

G. E. Kidder Smith Builds: The Travel of Architectural Photography
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 Universit√† Iuav di Venezia. Maggi trained as an architect at the Universit√† Iuav di Venezia, and he obtained his PhD in Architecture and Visual Studies at Edinburgh College of Art.


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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.
Although he was born in Alabama and lived in New York City, and many of his photographs have been archived at MITG. 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.
GEKS was no stranger to Venice either, having spent years in Italy (off and on) working on what would be published in 1955 as Italy Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Native Inheritance. It was the third "Builds" book he researched, wrote, photographed, and laid out, coming a decade after his first foray into architectural publishing: the 1943 book Brazil Builds: Architecture New and Old 1652-1942. Written by Philip L. Goodwin and published by MoMA as a companion to an exhibition of the same name, Brazil Builds saw GEKS accompany Goodwin to Brazil to photograph old and new buildings for the exhibition and book. Curiously, an article in Town & Country magazine covering the exhibition noted that most of the photographs were taken by "a great nephew of the late Francis Hopkinson Smith, author, artist, engineer, contractor, and lecturer." GEKS was not quite as multifaceted in 1943, but by the time of his death five decades later he would add author, curator, graphic designer, lecturer, and TV personality to his architect and photographer credentials, and eclipse Hopkinson Smith in recognition.
The title of Maggi's book clearly refers to Brazil Builds, Italy Builds, and the other "Builds" books: Switzerland Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Native Prototypes and Sweden Builds: Its Modern Architecture and Land Policy Background, Development and Contribution. These nation-focused books, which busied GEKS from the early 1940s through to the late 1950s, were followed by two books on European architecture in the first half of the 1960s and cumulatively encompassed the first phase of his career. The "Builds" books gave cohesive treatment to each country's architecture by putting contemporary buildings into historical, geographical, and other contexts through thorough research and documentation. Each one would delve into a country's past before presenting its present, educating readers in the process and being more than just surveys of new architecture. To Maggi, the books are examples of how GEKS could "build" without actually practicing as an architect; they were "books as buildings," with GEKS controlling just about every aspect of their creation.
Following a foreword by Michelangelo Sabatino and an introduction by Maggi, G. E. Kidder Smith Builds presents the dozen books by GEKS, alongside Brazil Builds, a 1946 article in The Architectural Forum called "The Navy Builds" (GEKS was in the US Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1946), and an unpublished "dummy book" called The Magnificence of Italy (more justification for the archive in Venice). Readers see clearly the shift GEKS undertook in the second, more lasting phase of his career, which saw he and Dot travel extensively across the United States to produce a half-dozen volumes with thousands of buildings covering 800 years of American architecture. Maggi's book also devotes a section to the exhibitions GEKS curated, many of them offshoots of his books. Surprising in that chapter are a transcript of the 1978 PBS documentary, 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):