As a Director at Thomas Phifer and Partners architecture firm in New York, Gabriel Smith has been a leader both through his teaching and his projects. Smith's specialty, however, has become designing museums. He has been collaborating on museum's since the early 90's, contributing to breathtaking projects such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw as well as the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
To Smith, museums are "every architect's dream project, they are the cathedrals of our time." In designing these cultural spaces, he places great importance on light and atmosphere. "We talk so much in these projects about good light for the art, but we are always also thinking about the light for people in the spaces. People tend to separate the architecture from the art but if you're working toward the best experience of the art, the result is seamless." Naturally Smith favors certain museums over others, noting the Menil Collection in Houston, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth, and the Kolumba Museum in Cologne, all because of their natural light.
Although Smith is recognized for his architecture, he savors smaller projects that involve physical creativity. He has designed furniture and created art and considers both disciplines valuable to his other design work. "I always take inspiration from the work I have done with my hands as a model maker, furniture designer and artist. Great craft is hard to argue with no matter the scale project and it requires 'thinking with your hands.'"
Smith works with his hands in his architectural work as well. "Ultimately, translating materials into space is what we do, so I sketch out details by hand and work directly with fabricators and crafts people to resolve complex details."
"Design thinking is perhaps the most critical thing we can learn and teach in a world of rapid change." - Gabriel Smith
Smith likes to transfer his hands-on work philosophy to his students. "Design thinking is perhaps the most critical thing we can learn and teach in a world of rapid change. It allows one to think at both large and small scales and to see paths and intersections that may not be so obvious."
Having taught at Cornell, Columbia and Tulane School of Architecture, it is evident that architectural education is essential in Smith's practice. "Teaching is a way to both give back to the profession but also a way to keep focused on design in a profession that requires so many skills."
Smith's enthusiasm for guiding future architects through their education might manifest from the way he views architecture and what it could mean in the future. "For many reasons, ecological, economical and theoretical, I see architecture trending away from metaphor and instead operating to connect us with our place and with the natural world."
Smith draws inspiration from the things architects have striven towards in the past, and the way this focus has shifted and evolved today. "I have always subscribed to the idea that architecture can tie us back to the world rather than separate us from it. Architects have spent hundreds of years trying to make buildings which are metaphorical (traditional, modern, postmodern etc.). I am increasingly interested in architecture which operates to situate us in a time and place."
This sentiment seems fitting for an architect who designs museums and cultural centers. Though this outlook plays a large role in his design process, his inspiration can be boiled down to something deceptively simple. "Architecture is 90% solving complex puzzles. I love a good puzzle!"