George Everard Kidder Smith (1913–1997) was as an architect, author, educator, photographer, and “builder” of books and exhibitions. He traveled the world with his wife Dorothea and chronicled the modern architectural movement. While his multifaceted work received praise from peers throughout his life, G. E. Kidder Smith has not received the historical assessment of other contemporary figures such as Julius Shulman and Ezra Stoller. Luckily, the new book G. E. Kidder Smith Builds: The Travel of Architectural Photography (ORO Editions) aims to address this gap. Authored by Angelo Maggi with a foreword by Michelangelo Sabatino, the book provides a look at his remarkable career, building upon Maggi’s thorough research of G. E. Kidder Smith’s archive of prints, negatives, correspondence, lectures, and book-design-related materials.
Opening in late May and running until July, three exhibitions in Chicagoland will focus on different aspects of G. E. Kidder Smith’s work. Coinciding with the opening of the exhibitions, Iker Gil (IG) interviewed Angelo Maggi (AM) and Michelangelo Sabatino (MS) as well as exhibition designer Andrea Nalesso (AN) and book designers Neil Donnelly (ND) and Siiri Tännler (ST) to learn about G. E. Kidder Smith as well as the upcoming book and exhibitions.
IG: Wherein lies the decision to study G. E. Kidder Smith?
AM: Its origins lie in the time when I started reading Eric de Maré books on architectural photography. In 1957, de Maré published his (frequently reprinted) classic Penguin handbook, Photography, which was followed by the masterly Photography and Architecture (1961) and Architectural Photography (1975). In all these volumes de Maré refers to G.E. Kidder Smith as one of the foremost figures of architectural photography and author of volumes of hints, suggestions, and realities in representing the architectural space. He writes: “Photography is building with light, therefore buildings, especially in their parts and details, offer great scope to the creative photographer, since they possess all the photographic needs of form, line, tone, and texture. Among the finest architectural photographers in the world is G.E. Kidder Smith!”
MS: Angelo and I first met and studied architecture at the Università Iuav di Venezia at a time when the role that history could play in enhancing contemporary architecture (think Aldo Rossi) was at the forefront of our faculty’s approach to design.
I first came across Kidder Smith’s landmark book Italy Builds. Its Modern Architecture and Native Inheritance (1955) while working on my dissertation, Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy (2011). What is remarkable about Italy Builds, published in the midcentury, is Kidder Smith’s understanding that modern architecture existed within the context of Italy’s historic built environment rather than as isolated objects. It is this very same understanding (and appreciation) that he applied to other books about Switzerland and Sweden during the same period and beyond.
IG: What makes Kidder Smith a significant, albeit overlooked, author and photographer?
AM: GEKS perfectly represents the architect as a writer and a photographer. To some, writing about architecture gives as much pleasure as creating it. This, combined with a skillful and very personal use of the camera, is what animates Kidder Smith.
IG: His family gave you access to the G. E. Kidder Smith archive, which was privately held until you received it. What information stood out during your research?
AM: 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. It took more than a week to go through everything with the help of Samuel Smith, Kidder Smith’s grandson. What stood out was the precision with which GEKS filed and numbered everything. There was such a quantity of written sources, photocopies, with references to his work and massive historical analysis on the architecture and built environment he wrote of. Last but not least the most surprising thing was the beauty of all of the photographs he had taken during his long career.
G: How did the archive arrive to the Università Iuav di Venezia (Iuav) where you are a faculty member?
AM: It was December 2015, just before Christmas. The Smith family was in New York when I met them. It was then when they took the decision to donate the archive to my university where I was (and I still am) a faculty member.
IG: G. E. Kidder Smith graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in Architecture from Princeton University. What led him to become a photographer?
AM: The necessity to illustrate his own books with good quality images. He once said: “Photography has always been a keen interest of mine, and has been invaluable in illustrating my books.”
IG: Unlike other architectural photographers that developed their work through commissions from their clients, G. E. Kidder Smith had a more independent attitude to his work. Can you talk about his approach to his work?
MS: Kidder Smith strategically used his sole-authored books as vehicles through which to communicate and disseminate his visual and written observations about modern architecture to an audience of generalists and specialists. Through these sole-authored books (more so than professional journals) he was better able to control his multifaceted message because he typically selected his publisher and graphic design collaborators.
IG: As you mention in your introductory text to the book, G. E. Kidder Smith was an author, educator, photographer, and “builder” of books and exhibitions. Can you talk about this multidimensional figure and the relevance of this approach?
MS: Kidder Smith identified primarily as an architect who took photographs and wrote about architecture with the aim of educating his readers. His “design” of books and the framing of his photographs cannot be understood without understanding his self-identification as an architect.
IG: His first books as author and photographer, Sweden Builds (1950), Switzerland Builds (1950), and Italy Builds (1955) explored countries beyond the US at a time that travel was reserved for the elite. What was the impetus to explore these specific countries and what did G. E. Kidder Smith want to convey?
MS: As cosmopolitan and far-flung as his travels were, Kidder Smith was above all interested in leveraging what he observed elsewhere to persuade Americans to pursue quality in their own contemporary architecture. Not by coincidence, early on in his career, he wrote “The Tragedy of American Architecture” (1945) to denounce America’s lack of commitment to excellence in the built environment.
IG: Kidder Smith documented modern architecture alongside historic sites. He also visited known as well as lesser-known buildings. Can you talk about this relationship between historic and modern buildings, between vernacular and “signature” buildings, in his work?
MS: Kidder Smith’s interest in vernacular buildings can be traced back to his early photographs of the limestone villages of the English Cotswolds, commissioned in the late 1930s by his Princeton teacher Adams Comstock. Kidder Smith’s books reveal his belief that architect-designed and vernacular buildings should co-exist alongside each other.
IG: How did Kidder Smith research and keep track of the new structures being built at the time ahead of his trips?
AM: He planned every visit to different countries by reading about newly built structures in architectural magazines and books.
IG: His wife Dorothea “Dot” Fales Wilder, whom he married in 1942, accompanied G. E. Kidder Smith on his world travels, contributing to his books on architecture. Can you talk about their collaboration and work together?
AM: Kidder Smith and his wife Dorothea “epically” visited, analyzed, and photographed thousands of structures. Mrs. Kidder Smith was the driver-navigator. She helped in all the building evaluations and wrote up most of the field sheets. GEKS once said: “Dot has been my right hand in everything: a perceptive eye, an encouraging backer-upper, a brainy beauty, and a dancing delight.”
IG: After his travels and books focused on international subjects in the 1950s and 1960s, Kidder Smith focused on the United States, starting with A Pictorial History of Architecture in America published in 1976 and that coincided with the Bicentennial. Can you talk about this shift in his work?
AM: As soon as he got back from India in the late 1960s, Kidder Smith’s aim was also to work on a national scale trying to capture with his camera American architectural heritage so it could be better understood and eventually preserved, at least visually. At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts he saw the Modern Architecture U.S.A. exhibition curated by Arthur Drexler from MoMA: “We popped into the museum on Sunday morning and I saw the Architecture U.S.A. show which started life at the Museum of Modern Art here a couple of years ago. It’s a pretty good show and seeing it again after a lapse gave me ideas for my forthcoming project on the US.” He was particularly interested in the campaign to promote the United States based on American architectural and cultural resources. The visual transmission of America’s built heritage became the scope of two of his books: Pictorial History of Architecture in America for the bicentennial in 1976, while the Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday jointly published the encyclopedic three volumes The Architecture of the United States (1981).
IG: In many of his photographs, G. E. Kidder Smith included people alongside the buildings he was focusing on. Can you talk about the relationship between buildings and people?
AM: GEKS took particular care to create an appropriate visual structure within his pictures, setting the images whenever possible in a framework that contributed significantly to the appearance of the whole. The anonymous scale figures, preferably in both motion and silhouette, are a fundamental element in Kidder Smith’s work. He knew that to have a better understanding of the architectural proportions, it was essential to capture the space with people in it. And when the architectural scene was not vibrantly animated, Kidder Smith and his wife would be part of the staging of the image. There is no other happily married couple in the history of photography so actively featuring and picturing themselves in an architectural frame like Dorothea and Kidder Smith.
MS: In almost every photo Kidder Smith took, he included a human figure (typically of “Dot,” his wife, travel companion, and collaborator) to reveal the scale of a building and site. The human figure/s are never front and center, so one needs to look carefully at the photograph to identify them.
IG: I’d like to know more about who G. E. Kidder Smith thought the audience was for his work. He was prolific not only in his books but also used the medium of television with his PBS program, An Architectural Odyssey with G. E. Kidder Smith.
MS: Beyond his books, Kidder Smith educated the American through television long before Robert A. M. Stern’s Pride of Place: Building the American Dream (1986), Spiro Kostof’s America By Design (1987), and more recently History Detectives, co-hosted by Gwendolyn Wright.
IG: Another aspect about G. E. Kidder Smith’s work that ran parallel to his photography, books, and exhibitions was preservation activism and his role as civic watchdog. He campaigned against the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago as well as Le Corbusier’s imperiled Villa Savoye in Poissy. He also sent dozens and dozens of letters to The New York Times. Can you elaborate more on this civic and preservation role?
MS: Kidder Smith’s advocacy in the late 1950s early 1960s on behalf of twentieth-century architectural masterpieces at a time when preservation of the modern was still in its infancy, is an extension of his commitment to educating the general and professional audience about the importance that buildings play in the arts and culture of a society.
IG: There are three exhibitions on the work of G. E. Kidder Smith being presented in and around Chicago simultaneously: the Graham Resource Center at IIT, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, and the Barnsworth Gallery at the Edith Farnsworth House. How is each exhibition conceived content-wise?
MS: The three exhibitions are site-specific. Since IIT College of Architecture’s Graham Resource Center functions primarily as a library, we decided to reveal Kidder Smith’s process of designing and “building” books so students and faculty can better understand the challenges and opportunities involved with publishing books. At the Edith Farnsworth House we selected Kidder Smith’s photographs of domestic architecture across different time periods and regions of America. Finally, at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, we focused on Kidder Smith’s decades-long fascination for the modern and historic built environment of Italy.
IG: How did Kidder Smith’s multifaceted book and exhibition production inspire the current exhibition design?
AN: Kidder Smith assumed books and exhibitions as experiences for the viewers—both readers and visitors—aiming to keep a high level of engagement with his end users. In this sense, all his productions were based on a precise and rhythmic narrative where images were arranged creating a fluent and vibrant visual sequence. According to the consideration that a “show is a kind of magnificent poster for the book”—which GEKS adopted throughout his career—our exhibition design wants to highlight a few key aspects on the occasion of the launch of the new book on Kidder Smith. Our project narrative is based on tailoring the images in each exhibition in response to the distinct characteristics of each venue.
For instance, at the Barnsworth Gallery, the walls form a polygonal center-based plan space. We considered the walls in pairs and we decided to install the images as double-spread book pages. At the Istituto Italiano di Cultura we particularly focused on the main circular wall where we featured a selection of masterpiece buildings in Italy. In this case, the photographs are shown as two endless strips highlighting the continuousness between the old and new. At IIT we found it most appropriate to emphasize the link not only between Kidder Smith’s books but also with the new book designed by Neil and Siiri. For this reason, we included the graphic used for the new book’s endpaper as a backdrop for the vitrines where GEKS books are displayed.
In agreement with the curators, we decided not to install any captions on the walls and for the vitrines, we designed a general card—containing the information about the three exhibitions—and a nested folded paper with the details of pieces exhibited in the three exhibition. The visual design of the card is accurately referenced on the new book’s cover, while the folding paper is in letter format, a tribute to Kidder Smith’s penchant for letter writing throughout his life. In this way, visitors are allowed not only a visual experience but they let something physical and tactile in memory of their participation in the shows.
IG: Kidder Smith’s published books used a diverse range of formats, including paperback pocket-sized books, hardcover series, and luxury large-format slip-cased editions. How did Kidder Smith use graphic design and photography to reach both a specialized and general audience?
ND and ST: To the extent that he is recognized at all, G.E. Kidder Smith is usually known for his contributions to architectural photography. But at least as important was his tactical use of the book format as a tool not only for organizing and presenting his work, but also for disseminating it. The smaller paperbacks could function as field guides for curious architectural tourists, while his larger hardcover books allowed for deeper investigations into focused topics. The range of formats was a sign of Kidder Smith’s awareness of the importance of form in deploying his ideas in ways that would match the needs of his audience.
IG: How did you approach the design of a book about his work, including his books?
ND and ST: Very carefully, especially since Kidder Smith commissioned some of the giants of midcentury graphic design for his book jackets! It was important from the beginning to build on Kidder Smith’s precedents without succumbing to historical pastiche or designing a period piece. By the time we were involved with the project, the page size was already set by AR+D to match the dimensions of Kidder Smith’s series of Builds books. We decided to embrace this historical echo by repurposing Kidder Smith’s speckled/splattered endpapers using our new color scheme, by reproducing several spreads from these books at actual size, and by building our page grid to match the one used by Kidder Smith. This grid, in particular, with its generous outer margins and column gutters, and narrow inner margins, was quite different from our usual tendencies, which forced us to reckon with Kidder Smith’s influence and reconcile his approach with our own. It was a way of allowing him to be present through our work, and to make something rooted in the era without being too indebted to it.
We looked for equally meaningful precedents when choosing typefaces for the book. Given Kidder Smith’s central role in saving Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House from demolition, Reply seemed like a perfect fit. Designed by François Rappo and released by Optimo in 2021, Reply is based on an unusual American typewriter typeface from the 1930s—used by Wright in his correspondence—that was itself based on European geometric sans-serif typefaces from this era. Paired with Reply is Egizio, a serif typeface from 1956 by Italian designer Aldo Novarese based on nineteenth century British type styles, further reinforcing the importance of cultural cross-pollination in Kidder Smith’s work.
IG: Why do you think G. E. Kidder Smith’s has not been the subject of an historical assessment as has been the case of other architectural photographers such as Hedrich Blessing, Ezra Stoller, and Julius Shulman?
AM: G. E. Kidder Smith was part of a distinct group of individuals who simultaneously wrote and illustrated their books. Yet few of his photographs have assumed “iconic” status like those taken by Julius Shulman or Ezra Stoller. Outspoken and extremely self-confident when giving his personal opinions on architecture, some of his remarks maybe caused controversy. He was not only an architectural photographer, but he was also an architectural critic, educator, writer, and designer and maybe not being in the commercial world of architectural photography made him less popular.
IG: What do want people to take away from your book and exhibitions on G. E. Kidder Smith?
MS: We hope new generations of future architects and architecture aficionados will become reacquainted with Kidder Smith’s passion and love for the built environment. And most importantly, we hope they will be reminded that if we publish books but don’t advocate for the preservation of the built environment, there will be nothing left of significance to visit and write about!
IIT College of Architecture, Graham Resource Center (lower-level S. R. Crown Hall)
Exhibit runs from May 20 until July 8, 2022
Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
At Home in America
Barnsworth Gallery, The Edith Farnsworth House, 14520 River Road, Plano, Illinois
Exhibit runs from May 22 until July 31, 2022
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
Italian Cultural Institute in Chicago, 500 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1450
Exhibit runs from Monday, May 23–Friday, July 8, 2022
Open Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. (Appointment only: email@example.com)