All the world is a stage, and it only seems as if Peter Smith built most of them. Canada’s foremost theatre architect of both new performance spaces and the restoration of heritage venues, the Toronto-based designer complied a list of accomplishments in the field as long as a Shakespeare soliloquy.
His blueprint acumen and cool-headed pragmatism touched everything from Toronto’s Harbourfront Arts Centre to the Kleck Theatre at Occidental College in Los Angeles to the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., to the jewel in his career crown, Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.
That classy and timeless 2,000-seater was originally conceived by commercial theatre maestros Mirvish Productions as a disposable facility built exclusively for a multi-year run of the blockbuster Miss Saigon musical, beginning in 1993. At some point, it was decided that theatre would be permanent after all, not temporary. The fast-track production tested Mr. Smith’s renowned composure, heavy knowhow, tight-budget diligence and eagle eye for detail.
Despite the tight deadlines and occasional architectural concessions, Mr. Smith would not budge from his core belief that performing arts spaces should serve the performers and the audiences. By reviving the traditional shoebox-shape theatre design and rejecting the modernist widening and flattening of spaces, Mr. Smith made the Princess of Wales highly approachable in terms of sightlines, acoustics and pocketbooks.
“He had enormous insight into the history of theatres and how they evolved,” said David Mirvish, the theatre and art impresario who most recently worked with Mr. Smith on the renovation of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 2016. “Essentially, he wanted to connect the audiences to the stage and the actors.”
The wisdom of the time was to build one single deep balcony rather than stack one upon another. But for the Princess of Wales, Mr. Mirvish and Mr. Smith agreed on two balconies in the name of intimacy and for the cheaper gallery seats an upper balcony would provide.
“It was about giving everyone access,” said Mr. Mirvish. “Unlike a movie theatre, the scale needs to be human. Peter understood that inherently.”
Mr. Smith, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2019, died July 7, at West Park Healthcare Centre in Toronto. He was 85.
His designs and renovations were marked by a graceful functionality. To him, “edgy” was a four-letter word; “post-modern,” a near pejorative. Instead, aesthetic continuity and a sensitivity to context were the hallmarks of his design ethos. For auditoriums, Mr. Smith was in favour of the closeness that boxes and wrap-around balconies provided.
“His buildings look like they’ve always been there,” explained theatre acoustician John O’Keefe, who first worked with Mr. Smith on Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius. “You look at the Princess of Wales, and it’s very modern. Yet it doesn’t scream its decade like Metro Hall does across the street.”
Mr. Smith also believed strongly that theatre and the arts were part of the community. “We all think that now, but Peter’s thinking predated that,” said architect Athos Zaghi.
A large lobby at the Princess of Wales, for example, was built with a glass front so theatregoers can be seen from outside. In her 1993 review of the theatre, the Globe’s architecture critic, Adele Freedman wrote that Mr. Smith contributed a “handsome façade of Indiana limestone and Quebec granite which, in the best tradition of Canadian architecture, makes an occasion of the street.”
As a problem-solver and a dispute-settler, he was a tall, calming presence in the boardroom and in the field. He earned the admiration and respect of staff, clients and the hard-hat people alike. “He was gracious, down to earth and a gentleman,” said Mr. Mirvish, who took Mr. Smith’s counsel even after the architect’s retirement. “And by gentleman, I mean that in the truest sense of the word – he was gentle.”
Although collegial, the British-born architect had a serious manner and was not a social animal by nature. “It’s hard to tell stories about Peter,” said Mr. Zaghi, who was hired on at Lett / Smith Architects by Mr. Smith in 1989. “One didn’t really know him outside the office.”
What we do know is that Mr. Smith had a passion for fast cars, both as a rally racer in his youth and as a Formula One fan. He once owned a 1968 Pontiac Firebird that was highly impractical as a family car. “With three kids in what passed for a back seat, he had to move on from that,” said son Stephen Smith.
Going through his father’s carousel racks of slides recently, Stephen found nothing but endless shots of race cars and buildings. “It became a joke with us: ‘Are there going to be any people pictures?’ ”
Indeed, Mr. Smith had an almost familial relationship with the buildings he designed. It had to have been a blow in 2012 when Mr. Mirvish announced he would work with superstar Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry to tear down the Princess of Wales Theatre and replace it with condo towers.
“He never said anything publicly, but I think that was a devastating moment for my father,” said Robin Smith. “I’ve always thought as the buildings he did as brothers and sisters. They were part of the family.”
In the end, the decision to raze the Princess of Wales was reversed. It stands to this day. Still, Mr. Smith was nothing if not practical. “It’s not a monument or a landmark,” he once said of the theatre before its opening. “When the chips are down, the building is being built so it can return the investment.”
Peter John Smith was born March 6, 1936, in Birmingham, England, the only child of Bernard Smith and Elsie Smith (her maiden name was also Smith). His father worked in a metal casting plant that manufactured, among other things, Corgi-brand toy cars and the trophy awarded to the women’s single champion at the Wimbledon tennis championships. Elsie was a secretary at the company until she married her husband.
Mr. Smith’s formative years aligned with the Second World War. Reared on rationed food, he carried a nostalgic fondness for powdered eggs and milk his whole life.
Post war, he developed a keen interest in building and rebuilding cars in his father’s garage. In 1959, he joined friends on a road trip from New England to California in a rotting woodie wagon from the 1940s. “There were several doors that they had to screw shut so they wouldn’t just fall off,” said said his son Stephen.
Before returning to England, Mr. Smith visited a friend in North Bay. There he met his future wife, the teaching student Heather Hume, at a hockey game. Eventually he immigrated to Canada to marry her and start a career and family.
In Toronto, the graduate of the Birmingham School of Architecture first worked in the firm of the great Canadian architect Ron Thom from 1963 to 1973, eventually becoming a senior partner. He was project architect for the Expo ’67 master plan and activity areas, the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo, the Shaw Festival Theatre and Trent University’s Bata Library.
In 1973, he entered a partnership with William P. Lett to form a general architectural practice with specialist interests in cultural and arts facilities. Mr. Smith had responsibility for the firm’s performing arts projects as well as for facilities for the visual arts, including the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation and the Power Plant Gallery, both in Toronto.
In addition to the Princess of Wales, theatre projects included the Isabel Bader Theatre (a 2001 Architecture and Urban Design Awards winner) and the renovation and reconstruction of the Grand Theatre, in London, Ont. (which earned a Governor General’s medal for design in 1982).
Despite his acclaim and elite résumé, Mr. Smith had relatively little bling to show for it. In that regard, he was the self-effacing architect of his own sparse trophy case. “You have to apply for awards and submit your work, and I don’t think that appealed to Peter,” explained Mr. Zaghi.
A morale-fostering boss, Mr. Smith’s loyalty to those he worked with was reciprocated. In the recession of the early 1990s, many among the staff of Lett / Smith were let go. “Some of the architects went to other firms, but many were in a holding pattern,” said Mr. Zaghi. “They wanted to go back to Lett / Smith. When you worked there, you really felt you were part of the team.”
After Lett / Smith was dissolved in 2004, Mr. Smith continued to practice, initially as the principal of Peter Smith Architect Inc., and then, in 2007, Peter Smith Associates Inc.
Mr. Smith was known for his allegiance to clients. “He was always available to us, no matter how small the project or issue,” said former Shaw Festival executive director Colleen Blake. “He also sent brilliant Christmas cards each year, usually clever architectural pop-ups of Christmas trees and the like.”
Working on the Chrysler Theatre in Windsor, Ont., Mr. Smith was concerned enough with the sightlines of the box seats that he flew down to the theatre from Toronto. He decided the shape of the box would need to be changed, which meant demolishing some of the just-completed work. The contractors said they’d do it immediately and that they’d bury the cost in their own budget. Mr. Smith wouldn’t hear of it.
“Peter paid for it, because he felt it was his responsibility,” Mr. Zaghi. “The look on their faces when he insisted on eating the extra costs himself, it was pure respect.”
Outside the office, in the mid-1960s, Mr. Smith had folded himself into a tiny Morris Cooper car and a Triumph 2000 as co-driver in a pair of Shell-sponsored trans-Canada races. During one, his car hit a ditch in Thunder Bay. The wrecked racer was fixed, but burnt up in a fire at the repair shop before it made it back on the road. “That was the end of his rally-racing days,” said son Robin Smith.
Later he travelled the world, filming races with a Super 8 camera for home-movie pleasure. He religiously woke up early on Sunday mornings to watch Formula One racing on television.
A fan of Brecht, Broadways musicals and George Bernard Shaw, Mr. Smith’s love of theatre extended beyond the architecture. Typically British, he had a sweet tooth, which he indulged often at Patachou Patisserie near his office. The shop’s specialty was its opera cake.
Mr. Smith’s final years were spent at a long-term care facility. He would conduct detailed analyses of the building and turn over pieces of furniture for closer inspection, to make sure they were safe. “Nobody asked him to do it,” said his son Stephen. “He just took it upon himself.”
Peter J. Smith leaves his wife, Heather, and his three sons, Stephen, Robin, and Chris.