Drawing inspiration: A childhood passion for art led Fred Wolf to a career in architecture

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Fred Wolf discovered architecture in high school—and he hasn't looked back since. Photo: Ashley Twiggs Fred Wolf discovered architecture in high school—and he hasn't looked back since. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

Fred Wolf grew up as one of six children in a modest Buffalo, New York house, where, when he wasn’t sketching, he was inventing and building. In high school, he discovered architecture, and he hasn’t looked back since. In addition to reminiscing about his childhood, the Wolf Ackerman partner told us about architecture school at UVA, what inspires him, and why Virginia may not be the most obvious place for him to practice.

Why architecture? Architecture is not only about the practical aspects of providing shelter and accommodating program, but it informs and responds to all of the routines and rituals in our lives. Frank Lloyd Wright said that “A building is not just a place to be, but a way to be.” I believe that is true. When it’s done well, a well-designed space can be transformative. The potential in architecture to create a place, or a form, or a landscape that resonates so strongly that it becomes almost inseparable from the identity of the act or function itself that it was created to serve is incredibly powerful. And, architecture is scalable. Design impacts everything­—from paper clips to bridges (or underpasses!).

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia? I studied architecture as an undergraduate at UVA. After working for a few years in Princeton, New Jersey, I returned to UVA again for graduate school, where I met my wife who is a landscape architect. Following grad school, we headed to New York City where we spent almost six years. But Charlottesville kept drawings us back. In 1998, I was invited to teach a studio as a visiting critic at the School of Architecture, and when I came back, it was clear that Charlottesville and Virginia could offer the balance of urban and rural, big and small, academic and professional experiences we were looking for. Over almost 30 years now, it’s become our home.

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design? I grew up in a large family with five brothers in Buffalo, New York. Until I went to high school, all eight of us were crammed into a modest story-and-a-half house. I spent a lot of time inventing projects and trying to build things. And I used to sketch constantly. I always had a sketch book growing up, and I really enjoyed using my imagination. At some point, my interest in drawing and art transitioned into a curiosity about buildings and design—maybe it was “The Brady Bunch.” Eventually I attended a career discovery summer program at Cornell for architecture during high school. From that point on, I was 110 percent sure that all I wanted to be was an architect, and with a few brief exceptions in life, that has never changed.

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you? Studying architecture in college was an intense and immersive experience. It’s unlike most traditional educations and teaching methods. I enjoyed school; it challenged my preconceived notions of how things should look and work and taught me how to question and critically analyze my own thinking and my work. Most importantly, it was about understanding design as a process, not simply an end product. I think my education, and my practice, are both informed by many great teachers and mentors. It’s hard to single out one. I’ve been influenced by a diverse combination of faculty and have been lucky to have worked for several excellent architects in other firms. I feel like my appreciation for our profession and love of what I do is due in part to so many different people.

On process: How does it begin? The design process begins with listening to the client and understanding the context within which we are working. Our work is creative and often subjective, but it is also very collaborative. Once I have gathered information, I like to start by diagramming ideas—using drawings as an extension of a thought process to help explore organizational concepts. And I find it’s helpful to be able to temporarily put aside practical concerns at the early stages and imagine what the ideal solution may look like. Too often, we hinder our creativity by rejecting potential ideas as unachievable simply because the solution doesn’t seem readily apparent or it hasn’t been done before.

What inspires you? Architecturally, when I see effortless design that appears so simple and timeless; architecture that is difficult to categorize or label. Generally, generosity and kindness.

What are you working on now? We are lucky to have a wide variety of projects in our office. At the moment, we have a mix of commercial, retail, educational, and multi-family projects as well as a few single-family residences. Among a dozen or so projects, we are currently working on an office building addition and conference center for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an elementary classroom building for Mountaintop Montessori, and the new South Range apartments on JPA.

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you? The site and one’s appreciation of place is essential to design. Architecture is a site-specific response to its context—whether that be an urban city block, a suburban neighborhood, or a rural landscape condition. Architecture is about reinforcing one’s experience and connection to a particular place and celebrating what is special about that condition.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region? I think it’s exciting. As a modernist, Virginia hasn’t always been the most obvious place to practice. We have an amazing collection of historic fabric and understandably there is a strong emphasis on preservation. But more recently, I think there seems to be more awareness that you can have preservation and celebrate the historic character of a place while still allowing for thoughtful development and modern interventions in architecture. You do not have to mimic or copy what is authentic to “match” existing historical assets. In fact, that practice dilutes the strength and power of what is authentic. Rather, architecture gives us an opportunity to creatively reinterpret details, materials, and construction methods that were themselves modern and progressive at one time. In general, the Mid-Atlantic region boasts some talented firms doing beautiful work from North Carolina up to Maryland. I am happy if we are considered part of that.

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