MIT professor of architecture, student of modernist design, builder of landmark Harvard house
Maurice Smith. (Courtesy photo)
Maurice Keith Smith died peacefully at home on Dec. 16, 2020, at the age of 94. His daughter Maggie and son Michael were with him. He was predeceased by his wife Janice (2008) and his eldest son Benjamin (2018).
His unique house on Cleaves Hill Road has been a local landmark and object of curiosity for decades. He and Janice bought an unfinished cape house on the site in 1966 and began modifying it with the help of his architecture students. They had been attracted to Harvard by its rocks, trees, and natural beauty, and were embraced by a close-knit community of neighbors that flourished in East Harvard in the late 1960s through the early ’80s. Their three children grew up in Harvard and graduated from the Bromfield School.
Maurice was born in 1926 in Hamilton, New Zealand, to an Irish father and English mother. He studied architecture at Auckland University, then came to the USA on a Fulbright scholarship in 1952, where he first taught at Kansas State College and then attended a master’s program at MIT. While at MIT, Maurice studied with R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and worked closely with a number of important European modernist architects and designers, including Bernard Rudofsky, Serge Chermayeff, and especially the Hungarian visual artist György Kepes, who became his mentor and close friend. He worked with Fuller on his first commercial geodesic dome at Woods Hole, and in 1955 led the construction of the first geodesic dome in the Southern Hemisphere, in Auckland.
In 1958, Maurice returned to MIT as a faculty member in the School of Architecture. He became a full professor in 1970 and taught architectural design at all levels as well as “built collage” workshops there until his retirement in 1996. Maurice designed several homes in Massachusetts, most notably those for the Blackman family in Groton and in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
The Smith house on Cleaves Hill Road. (Courtesy photo)
Design work, however, was secondary to his teaching, which was the love and focus of his life. His theory of “form language” shaped how generations of MIT students observe, analyze, and make form. One of his goals was to immerse his students in actual construction projects, and both the Harvard house and later a family place in Maine served as full-scale, three-dimensional and highly experimental “form workshops.” The “addition” to the house in Harvard, built from a wide array of scavenged material, could be seen as a “built space thesaurus,” offering countless possibilities for useful interior spaces and exterior areas.
Maurice is survived by his daughter Maggie, who lives with her partner Peter Clarke in the Cleaves Hill house, having returned from the West Coast in 2017 to care for Maurice. He is also survived by his son Michael and grandchildren Tomo and Amani Suematsu-Smith, who live in northern California. In New Zealand he is remembered by his nephew and four nieces.