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An Interview with Architect Jack Smith
Jack Smith is a Sun Valley architect. This interview took place in the summer of 2003.

 

jm neil and alan minskoff

What Should Architecture do for a person?

For the initial user, architecture should not only give you a comfortable, safe house, but it maybe needs to become more than that. It maybe needs to give you an opportunity to uplift your spirit, that quality that fills your spirit. It should change the way you live. It should be a beautiful experience.

I don't believe an architecture is really an architecture unless it has a spirit in it, a numinosity. Architecture should be more than just keeping the rain out. It should uplift the soul and the spirit and take you to places you wouldn't be normally. And great architecture has always done that.

Is there an ideal architecture for Idaho?

grove hotel
An ideal architecture for Idaho would be one that is sympathetic to architecture in the region. You have to look at the geography, geology, climate, history but you do it in a non-literal sense. You don't recapitulate history. History informs. We move forward from there. A non-literal translation of history appropriate to its time and place.

What does Sun Valley architecture mean to you?

I think ostentation really shouldn't have any place anywhere. The notion of "too much is not enough" doesn't appeal to me.

The idea of building these McMansions doesn't appeal to me. If they need the space, fine, but I would rather have a more respectful building that will last, that is appropriate to its site, fairly easily heated, uses both passive and active technology (solar). The Chinese pointed all of their buildings south. They have been doing this for thousands of years.

8th street in boiseAlthough I am told there are more architects per capita here then any place else in the world, some of them are very dedicated and interested in what they are doing. There are others who are appealing to the large and powerful animal that Plato talked about in The Republic, where the large and powerful animal wants all this stuff -- bananas and cakes --but all the stuff isn't good for the animal. But the person continues to feed it anyway.

The animal, of course, is a metaphor for the public at large. The point is, the public doesn't know what it wants, so it will eat all the things that aren't good for it, including McMansions. So the architect philosopher, if you will, would have a better grip on what's better for them.

Architecture has to satisfy the first need and the first client, but the architecture also has to go past that because the first client and the first need changes. Architecture lasts for centuries. The client and builder aren't here any more, so it needs to be sustainable to the other generation.

So, indeed, there is actually a moral issue here. To make something good that will serve themselves well but that will also serve others well. It's like planting a tree that you will never see grow and mature. It's a delicate subject. I don't mean to say that we have to impose everything on the client. I listen to the client, but I also listen to the site, and I listen to myself.

That is very different from someone bringing in a bunch of photographs and saying this is what I want, draw it up. We are not draftsmen. Drafting is part of our process but I'm not a draftsman to draw up somebody's usually pretty bad ideas. What amounts to their dreams can often turn into nightmares.

What's your take on the relationship between architect and contractor?

We are troubled with that. The builder is very important, but the builder is building what we create and what we draw. It's a great, wonderful, highly respected craft. But they sometimes think we are "word spinners" and they don't really need us. The evidence is very clear. They are basically very good craftspeople in terms of putting things together. But are they creative and are they doing "spontaneous novelty," and do they really know about aesthetic judgment? I can tell you they don't.

And another big problem is when the client and the contractor get together unilaterally, independent of the architect and make decisions. That's just grist for law suits. That happens all the time.

The communication should go through the architect. I'm not saying the architect is dictatorial in this. He has to be in the loop. So it goes client, architect, contractor.

I think architecture is losing ground, because the large and powerful animal is being fed by a lot of amateurs, and it's not good for us.

The profession of architecture is losing ground, and I don't think it's because of money. I think it's because the decisions are in the wrong hands. The decisions are in the hands of those who are not professional. It's really a misinformed public, and that's probably our fault. And it's a misinformed developer because they would rather have a captive architect to do whatever he or she wants, and that's wrong.

Some architects are compromisers. Some architects do feed the large and powerful animal and I don't have a high regard for them. I have had to turn down commissions; I have had to fight this battle for a long time.

When you get a great client -- and fortunately I have had many, and we always end up great friends -- then you have an opportunity to do something really special. Unless you hold to a higher ground with everyone, you are not going to make it. But the higher ground does not cost more. It often costs less.