Architecture with a Snap: Photographer G.E. Kidder Smith Has Traveled the World to Help People 'See' Buildings

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Photographer G.E. Kidder Smith has traveled the world to help people 'see' buildings.

In 1667, the year he fell on his sword, Francesco Borromini had not quite completed the San Carlo are Quattro Fontane church in Rome. The architectural masterpiece is a dazzling exercise of the Baroque imagination combining convex and concave curves, an array of columns and shades of light and dark. Architectural historians concur on the dynamic effect of the church on the eye; James Stevens Curl says it "seems to be in motion, rocking and swaying."

Photographer G.E. Kidder Smith saw this, too, when he wrote of San Carlo's "intricately coordinated churning." When Smith photographed the church, he opened his shutter for a half-second twice -- first, with his camera steady, then with the camera in motion, pivoting on one tripod leg. San Carlo quivers in Smith's photograph, intentionally blurred to mimic the energy of Borromini's design -- one more illustration of the way Smith's eye pierces to the essence of a building.

Smith has taken breathtaking photographs of buildings around the world for nearly 60 years, revealing architecture through beautifully composed images in black, white and shades of gray. Now his American work can be seen in the Source Book of American Architecture, published this month by the Princeton Architectural Press. The book (at 680 pages with 550 photographs) compresses and updates Smith's massive three-volume series, The Architecture of the United States, originally published in 1981.

The Source Book is full of information including advice on how to "see" architecture -- cross the Golden Gate Bridge in a convertible, for example. It also serves up some architectural zingers: "The Minnesota State Capitol ranks high among structures surfeiting with political megalomania."

In its best moments, the Source Book combines beautiful prose and stunning photographs, such as the entry on Louis I. Kahn's Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.: "This vast, haunting agora, flanked by angled walls focused on the infinity of the Pacific, provides a brilliantly formal setting on a gloriously informal site." The photographer's wit surfaces in the entry, too, referring to the institute as "the Versailles of the virus."

Born in 1913 in Birmingham, Ala., Smith began photographing structures as a Princeton architecture student in the late 1930s. A professor asked him to take pictures of the steep-roofed, stone Cotswold farmhouses in England. "Being in Europe and encountering architecture -- real architecture -- for the first time, my taste buds were perked," he says, "and so I kept going at it."

He followed his bachelor's degree with a master of fine arts degree in architecture from Princeton, which he finished early to go to Antioch, Syria, to join the Princeton-Louvre archaeological dig. That journey deepened his passion for photographing architecture: On his way to Antioch he stopped in Egypt; on his way back he visited Greece. …