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Maurice Smith, Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Dies at 94

Long-term MIT Professor Emeritus of Architecture Maurice Smith died peacefully at home with his family on December 16, 2020, at age 94. Throughout his long life, Maurice remained singularly, passionately, and tirelessly devoted to teaching. His form language theory, developed over more than half a century, shaped how generations of MIT architecture students observe, analyze, and make form. His life, public and private personae, pedagogical tactics, realized and unbuilt work, publications, lectures, and stories were all ‒ in every best sense ‒ extraordinary, legendary, and unforgettable.

Maurice Keith Smith was born in 1926 in Hamilton, New Zealand, to his Irish father James Allan Smith, and English mother Nellie May (née Temple). At the insistence of their father, all three brothers attended the local technical high school, and Maurice was among the few of his classmates to attend college. He graduated from Auckland School of Architecture in 1950 with a B.S. in Architecture.

In 1952, Smith traveled to the United States, where he taught at Kansas State College. There, he became good friends with fellow teacher Tasso Katselas. Together, they developed a lecture series that brought Frank Lloyd Wright and other prominent architects to speak.

Smith then entered the MIT M.Arch program as a Fulbright Scholar, initially focusing his research on Wright’s architecture. While at MIT, Maurice studied with a number of influential European modern architects and designers, most notably the Hungarian painter, educator and art theorist György Kepes, founder and director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, who became his lifelong mentor and close friend.

In 1954, Maurice returned to New Zealand, establishing an architectural practice in Auckland. By 1958, he had already worked on over twenty-five wide-ranging projects, including a geodesic dome for the Auckland Summer Birthday Carnival, believed to be the first geodesic dome in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1958, MIT Dean Pietro Belluschi invited Smith to return to MIT as an Instructor in charge of the formative first-year studio.

Maurice Smith’s path to professorship was unlikely. He incessantly wrote, sketched, diagrammed, taught, and designed, but published little. He built several extraordinary houses ‒ including two notable residences for Arthur and Camilla Blackman in Groton and Manchester, Massachusetts. Smith’s growing body of research, theory, collages and realized buildings spread primarily via word of mouth by clients and patrons like Kepes and the Blackmans, by a number of writers and editors including John Donat, Giancarlo de Carlo, Stanford Anderson, and Julian Beinart, and foremost by his students.

Through his research and teaching, Maurice laid bare the formal unity that connected French farmhouses, Iberian hill villages, classical Japanese architecture, landscapes and other natural formations, and the works of modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Carlo Scarpa. For more than half a century, in both subtle and direct ways, his unique studios, seminars in form language and built collage, body of work, and endless storytelling shaped MIT Department of Architecture graduates’ joy, passion, and core appreciation of beauty and excellence in writing, painting, graphic design, collage and other essential art forms.

Former student and professor Margaret Hickey (MIT Mechanical Engineering BS ‘63 and Architecture B.A. ’69) best describes the personae of Maurice Smith as a teacher and mentor:

“Far from being the unapproachable eminent professor, Maurice and his wife Janice invited students over to their apartment in Cambridge, and later to their house in Harvard, every Sunday afternoon. These weekly gatherings with his family served to build a community of interest among students and faculty. Students brought books and drawings and slides from their travels as well as contributions of food, and, without realizing it, absorbed the idea that architecture is about building community. It became common practice in the Department that students and faculty were all on a first-name basis and active participants in departmental discussions.

In addition to considering the work of famous architects, Maurice encouraged his students to look at all sorts of vernacular buildings from around the world, to understand the great variety of ways in which indigenous materials have been assembled to produce habitable and pleasant environments. Maurice’s own slide shows featured many images of spaces in the natural environment, which he could interpret for human use. He encouraged all of his students, including women who had no previous experience, to physically build models, furniture, and exhibits. His students thereby developed a respect for the process and craft of building and ultimately produced more accurate drawings and better understanding and communication with builders on job sites.”

Both the Smith family’s landmark Cleaves Hill Road home in Harvard, Massachusetts and their summer place in Maine served as highly experimental full-scale three-dimensional “form workshops,” in which dozens of his students over the decades tried their hands at physically interpreting his principles of design. The addition to the house in Harvard, built from a wide array of salvaged materials, can be seen as a “built space thesaurus” that offers countless possibilities for interior spaces and exterior places.

Smith’s built work appears in books including Henry Plummer’s The Potential House, Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani’s Cape Cod Modern, and John Habraken, Andrés Mignucci, and Jonathan Teicher’s Conversations with Form. His own 1982 article, “Fragments of Theory and Practice,” published in English and Italian (Spazio Societá 18:82), showcases his theoretical writings together with his Cleaves Hill house and the Blackman House in Groton as case studies. Similarly, his 1988 article, “Dimensional Self-Stability and Displacement in Field-Ordered Directional Alternations” (Places 5:2), provides a useful time-specific overview and primer.

This material is supplemented by Richard Rush’s widely available 1982 interview “Particular Associative Habitable (Built) Environments,” which appeared in Progressive Architecture (Progressive Architecture 3:82), and Mark Jarzombek’s “The Alternative Firmitas of Maurice K. Smith,” which appeared in A Second Modernism: MIT, architecture and the techno-social moment, a collection of essays published by MIT Press.

More than four thousand digitized images from the teaching, research, and projects of Maurice K. Smith have been gathered as a pedagogical tool in Intrinsic Attributes of Built Form Assemblage, at the MIT Library DOME website.

Maurice was predeceased by his wife Janice (2008) and his eldest son Benjamin (2018). He is survived by his daughter Maggie, who lives with her partner Peter Clarke in the Cleaves Hill Road house, and by his son Michael and grandchildren Tomo and Amani Suematsu-Smith. In New Zealand, Maurice is remembered by his nephew and four nieces.

The voluminous task of researching, gathering, preserving, and making accessible Maurice Smith’s body of collages, drawn and built work, papers, slides, and related publications is ongoing. Plans regarding those efforts and a celebration of his life are being formulated.

Originally published on January 9, 2021 by MITArchA.