Associate Professor Steven Semes says his interest in traditional architecture began during his youth in the southern Florida community of Coral Gables, which was developed as a “traditional new town” in the 1920s. It was there, in the 1950s and ’60s, that he grew up around such Mediterranean Revival landmarks as Vizcaya (1916), the Coral Gables City Hall (1927) and the Venetian Pool (1924), where a young Semes took swimming lessons. His father and grandfather were homebuilders, encouraging his interest in architecture from an early age. The Semes’ family vacation home, in the mountains of North Carolina, was built to plans he drew at the age of 14.
A few years later, Semes headed to the University of Virginia. “I got an excellent Bauhaus education. What seemed strange at the time was the complete disconnect between what the faculty taught in studio and all the classical buildings by Thomas Jefferson and others all around us, which were never discussed.”
“When I was at UVA, in the ’70s,” he says, “the new structures being built on the Grounds were traditional red brick and white trim. I was among the students who were up in arms, thinking that the University should instead hire architecture faculty to design modern buildings that would set the world on fire.”
In his last year at Virginia, Semes edited the student publication Modulus, featuring an unbuilt project for the University by Louis I. Kahn and a transcript of Kahn’s address to the students in 1972, both previously unpublished. This was the beginning of a long involvement in writing and editing.
After receiving his degree in 1975, Semes took a position with the National Park Service Preservation Projects Branch, in which he gained hands-on experience with historic buildings and, as he tells it, “happened to be in the room while the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation were being written.” Realizing his passion for old buildings, Semes planned to pursue a career in preservation. “I was all prepared to do that when I heard Driehaus Prize winner Robert A. M. Stern speak in Washington in 1977,” he says. “What he revealed was that you could make new buildings with some of the same qualities we admire in old buildings. It was the beginning of a renewed interest in historic architecture, so I went off to Columbia to see what he could teach me.
“At that time Columbia was a very interesting place—it was the height of Postmodernism—and there was a huge amount of debate and openness to different kinds of architecture. It was a very invigorating environment.” While at Columbia, Semes began to explore the legitimacy and feasibility of designing classical architecture once again, an interest encouraged (cautiously) by Stern. Semes and a classmate founded and edited the student publication, Précis, which continued through several editions featuring student and faculty design work and research.
Semes’ professional experience has been unusually varied. For five years he was a project architect with Johnson/Burgee Architects of New York, where he worked closely with Philip Johnson on theaters and office buildings, and for four years was an associate with David S. Gast and Associates of San Francisco, where he pursued opportunities for traditional craftsmanship in new residential work. Upon returning to New York in 1993, Semes joined Cooper, Robertson & Partners, working with Driehaus Prize-winner Jaquelin T. Robertson. In 1999 Semes opened his own office in New York, undertaking mostly modest residential projects and collaborating with other classical designers on larger ones.
In 1981, while working in Johnson’s office, Semes met Henry Hope Reed, one of the founders of Classical America, who encouraged him to take a drawing class taught by Alvin Holm at the National Academy of Design. “That’s what really turned me around—Henry and Al helped me to see that classical architecture could be learned and was applicable today,” he says.
As a Fellow and faculty member of The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, Semes taught traditional design for several years, contributed to its journal The Classicist, and lectured extensively on classical design, which led to publication of his first book, The Architecture of the Classical Interior. More recently, his research has returned to the issues of preservation and new architecture in historic contexts that have occupied him throughout his career, leading to his second book, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation. Both books are now considered standard works in their respective subject areas.
“The idea of having very aggressive and contrasting buildings in historic settings has become a problem that’s now recognized by the public. But the leaders of the preservation community have been reluctant to relinquish the principle that we can’t get in the way of the 'architecture of our time.' I respond to that by saying, ‘We traditional architects are making the architecture of our time, and we’d appreciate it very much if you’d recognize that.’”
The ICAA has just announced Semes will assume the position of Editor of The Classicist, which has become the leading peer-reviewed journal in the field of classical architecture and allied arts. “For me, this is a great opportunity to bring together everything that has occupied me in my career—classical architecture, decorative arts, historic preservation, writing and scholarship. It is also an important route to publication for younger architects and scholars who are often unable to publish elsewhere.”
Semes enjoys teaching at the University of Notre Dame for several reasons: "First, because the approach of the School of Architecture is supportive of the kind of architecture and cities that I love; second, the students are fantastic—open, engaged, curious, and very talented; and third, because I have valued colleagues and support for my research. But also important is the fact that with many of my colleagues and students I can also share a spiritual commitment that provides an essential context for everything else."
The highlight of Semes’ Notre Dame career so far? The School’s Rome Studies Program, where he was Academic Director 2008-2011 and where he continues to teach part of each year. "There is no question that this is a great opportunity for our students. It is unique: an entire academic year in the Eternal City studying the greatest monuments of Western art and architecture. For me, the time in Rome has immeasurably contributed to my teaching and research, not to mention that living in Rome is a great gift on a personal level. This Program is truly a jewel in the crown of Our Lady's University."
Next step? Current research is focusing on the traditional architects and urbanists of early twentieth-century Rome. “Again I’ve found a subject that combines all my interests and also happens to be both timely and largely unexplored. It’s a book I’d like to read but it doesn’t exist yet.”