In Memoriam: Peter Smith, 1936-2021

Smith was a go-to architect in theatre design, with work including the Shaw Festival Theatre (under Ron Thom), the Isabel Bader Theatre at the University of Toronto, and the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Peter Smith during his time at Lett/Smith Architects. Courtesy of the Smith family (photographer unknown)

The architectural profession has, we all know, a cast of characters behind the marquee star—those who contribute substantially to the core design itself, without fanfare, and who may be considered the true co-authors of major projects. Peter Smith, who died at age 85 in early July, was one such architect.

With his longtime colleague and close friend Bill Lett, he made his name with Lett/Smith Architects in Toronto. And before that, he was the under-recognized and invaluable architect who steered Ron Thom’s Shaw Festival Theatre into existence.

Peter Smith was born in Birmingham, England, and attended the University of Birmingham’s architecture school, an art-centric institution. Two years after his 1957 graduation, he met his future wife, Heather Hume, while visiting a friend in North Bay. That prompted his immigration to Canada soon afterwards, where he joined Ron Thom’s office on Colborne Street.

Ron Thom was at the time one of the most esteemed and sought-after architects in the country, and Smith revered his new boss. “Ron was the most intuitively skilled architect that I had ever run across,” he told this writer in a lengthy 2010 interview at Massey College. He shared Thom’s artisanal approach to architecture, and he benefited from the continuity that each architect at Thom’s office could have with their work—which, though commonplace now, was rare in the 1960s. In other Toronto offices, recalled Smith, “you put your drawing through a slot in the wall and there were a bunch of guys who took it and did the working drawings. If you were lucky, it would have some sort of similarity to what you designed.” But at the Thom Partnership, “we all played some design role and also did the working drawings, which I came to realize is pretty fundamental. You ended up understanding how the things went together and what happened on the construction site as well.”

Smith worked on a plethora of high-profile projects, including Trent University, Sir Sandford Fleming Community College, the Expo 67 activity areas, Metropolitan Toronto Zoo and other important buildings. “Peter was an excellent draftsman, in an era when all drawings were done by hand,” notes Lett, who was himself a key architect at Thom’s office in the 1960s. Both played important roles at the firm, with Smith serving as project architect for Trent’s Bata Library and Lett for Champlain College. “He was a kindred spirit,” says Lett; “low-key, quiet, someone who concentrated on getting the job done while ignoring the noise around him.”

“He was very irked seeing architects getting jobs based on their self-promotion,” affirms his son Robin Smith. He was one of the people who believed your work should speak for itself—which I know is naïve in today’s world.”

When Lett left Ron Thom’s office in 1968, Smith stayed on and, within a few years, became a senior partner at what was now known as the Thom Partnership. He started on a path towards his eventual specialty in theatre design when Ron Thom selected him to take charge of one of the firm’s most significant projects: the Shaw Festival Theatre. After Thom did an initial conceptual design, Smith stick-handled his way through budget cuts, design revisions, site changes and logistical challenges to bring the widely admired and efficiently designed building to fruition in 1974.

Like many of his colleagues, Smith wrestled with the dilemma of how long he could stay at the firm as Thom’s alcoholism worsened. In 1973, he departed to establish Lett/Smith Architects with his friend and former colleague. While Lett worked on an array of educational and residential projects, Smith focused on theatre design, quickly gaining a reputation as the go-to architect for this building typology. Among others, he designed the Isabel Bader Theatre at the University of Toronto; the Princess of Wales Theatre; the Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton; and Toronto’s Harbourfront Arts Centre, including the Power Plant Gallery and du Maurier Theatre Centre. “It was a happy office,” recalls Lett, with employees allowed to take off whatever time they needed, as long as they met deadlines.

In 1993, for his exceptional contributions to Canadian theatre, the Canadian Theatre Critics Association bestowed the Drama Bench Award to Peter Smith. He was the first architect to receive it.