IT is bitter, stinging cold on the 11th-story rooftop balcony of the soon-to-be-demolished La-Salle Building at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, but Chloethiel Woodard Smith -- despite runny eyes and nose, sudden onslaughts of lashing wind and the smothering fog of her own breath -- is taking the photographic session in stride. She is a small, solitary silhouette propped up on two bricks as she "casually" leans against an iron railing that overlooks a small section of the Washington skyline for which she's responsible. Smith is pointedly asked if she likes the view. After a few moments' survey of the massive ugly shoeboxes that make up the Connecticut Avenue concrete corridor, the architect concedes, "No. Not much to like." Then staring directly at one of her own designs, Smith adds rather resignedly, "No completed building is ever as successful or as satisfying as your mind's eye had originally envisioned it."
In 1967 an article in the New Yorker described Smith as "the most notable lady architect in the country." Characteristically, she refused to continue reading it after noing the qualifier that referred to her sex before her skill. A former employe recalls that Smith "was so mad, we practically had to scrape her off the ceiling." Never mind that the article later went on to admit that Smith was considered "quite simply one of the best architects, planners and thinkers about cities now working anywhere"; the damage had been done. The architect was offended.
"I'm sorry to sound truculent on this subject, but I just don't have the time or patience for that feminist sort of nonsense," Smith declared earlier in an interview at her office in Georgetown. "Lady architect, indeed. Why do they insist on using such ridiculous modifiers? Of course, we do the very same thing to blacks and other minorities. Oh, don't get me going on this," she threatens, indicating the time could best be spent touching upon themes of greater relevance.
Well, whether she likes it or not, Smith is so much the epitome of the successful career woman that she's bound to be held up a role model. "She is simply a marvel," Smith's former personal secretary of five years confided. "Working for her and observing her in action was the equivalent of a graduate school education for me. She just seems to combine it all so effortlessly: a successful, enviable career, marriage [of 38 years to Bromley Keables Smith, executive secretary of the National Security Council from 1961 to 1968 and a former consul in the foreign service] and motherhood. Do you know that this woman is so together that after she began labor pains with one of her two children, she could still stop at the bar of the Mayflower Hotel for a cocktail? Now that is classic Chloethiel for you."
Smith is a strange amalgam of images. Her well-groomed, feminine appearance immediately suggests a doyenne authoress of romantic gothic fiction, yet, as soon as she speaks, her mannerisms recall the serious, nononsense heroines of Ayn Rand novels who go far beyond the traditionally defined working woman sphere.
When not lighting another cigarette, Smith's delicate hands, with their impeccable deep rose manicure, caress a charcoal drawing pencil. At times throughout the interview the pencil seems to have a life of its own, moving rapidly across a small white scratch pad, leaving in its wake a series of intricate doodles of straight intersecting lines that will eventually begin to resemble a building. "I can't think without a pencil and a piece of paper," she apologizes, explaining that "these lines are three dimensional to me -- they are my world -- for the time of line drawing is longer, if not more intensive, than the time of the construction of buildings that grow out of these lines."
Some of Smith's designs have been described by architectural critics as "a marvel of ingenuity," "characteristically brilliant and deliberately provocative." Although she is now approaching 69, the confidence, vision and excitement of younger years do not seem to have abandoned her.
After graduating from the University of Oregon (B.A. in architecture, 1932) and Washington University in St. Louis (M.A. in architecture and city planning, 1933), Smith came to Washington in 1936 as chief of research and planning for the Federal Housing Agency. In 1940 she entered private practice and five years later founded the firm of Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Associated Architects.
Since then Smith has been responsible for much of the way contemporary Washington looks. Her "lines" have successfully evolved into a considerable portion of the residential urban development in Southwest (the Capital Park apartments, Harbour Square townhouses); Connecticut Avenue's Blake Building and Eleven Hundred Connecticut; the F Street pedestrian shopping plaza; the National Airport Metro station; the 480-acre Consolidated Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Beltsville; Reston's Waterview Townhouses; Chestnut Lodge in Rockville (a mental hospital for children); the E Street Expressway; and the Washington Channel Waterfront development, among others. In the past 10 years Smith's firm has completed projects totalling $250 million, taking in between a quarter of a million and a million dollars a year in fees.
When I asked Smith which of her buildings is her favorite, she answered, "the next one," explaining that "it takes so long for a building to be completed. You know, some projects take five or six years. My God, after all that time you've changed and grown, so by the time a project is completed, it's never what you want. It is during this growth process that I often comfort myself with what Barthelme says, that 'the artistic experience is that of failure. The actualization fails to meet, to equal the intuition. There is something out there that cannot be brought here. This is standard.'
"And of course, another frustration is that no architectural project can ever be compared to the private communion that occurs between a painter and his canvas or a sculptor and clay because architecture is a social art, involving so many other people -- not only clients, but construction engineers, zoning boards, planning commissions. So you rarely find an architect who feels that something he's designed is totally representative or responsive to nim. Except for that private time of 'lines' when you think about it, envision and dream about it at your drawing board."
Smith frets that many people don't know or fully appreciate the important role architects play in the scheme of things: "Architects are the set designers in people's lives and until the lights go on and the play begins, we are the only people who have seen whole and put the elements together. A client once defined architects as 'the ones who can see the spaces before they are there.' Seeing the buildings that shape people's lives before they are there and seeing them well in my mind's eye, that is the source of my work."
But inevitably the purely conceptual must be translated into the drab reality of something concrete like downtown office buildings. "Yes, unfortunately," Smith confesses, admitting that occasionally she "hates to put pencil to paper" at the thought of another office building. "After all, there's just so much that can be done with steel columns, air-conditioning units, elevators and underground parking."