It was autumn, and I had just moved to Charlottesville late that summer to embark upon the second phase of architecture school. I was thrilled, humbled, and full of optimism. Back then, I kept a paper map of North Carolina in my car. It had torn edges, crisp, hair-thin folds, and palimpsest markings of journeys taken. Along the top margin was a cropped strip of Southside Virginia. It included Danville, where I was born, and Clarksville on the lake. I could see that Route 15 would likely take me in the direction of UVA from my parent’s house near Oxford, North Carolina. Charlottesville was due north by three hours. Along the two-lane road, overgrown pale grass fields outlined in barbed wire were dotted with rust colored barns that bowed with grace into the earth. I still find that beautiful. But, getting deeper into the Virginia piedmont after passing through Buckingham and crossing the James River was like arriving in fabled Elysian Fields.
That memory has been imprinted on me largely by the striking transition of place in the span of passing through only five counties. It fascinates me that the interior lands of Virginia were settled a whole century prior to their North Carolina counterpart, but it’s that earlier settlement that gives us remnants of habitation easily seen from rural roads but rarely noticed as such. In Virginia, brick ruins shrouded in a thicket of trees stand like apparitions. Lone chimneys are anchored to pieces of broken walls where time has transformed the lasting foundations of domestic life into a balanced and beautiful union with nature. I pause in these places to admire dappled light and fluttering shadows that animate their surfaces. Native grasses soften the ground and I realize I’m standing in a room and a garden. It is silent, monumental, and transcendent.
The sacred and primitive nature of ruins captivates. It is hard to design what time and nature do so well. Should we even try to? But seeking reciprocity between architecture and landscape has been a guiding touchstone in my work. As a regional modernist, I’ve been inspired most by those whose work is built upon the tenets of modernism and yet evokes the emotional power of the vernacular. In Abode this month, we’ve visited a remarkable house (page 22) near Sperryville that stretches out along distinct edges of a natural plateau. At one narrow end a tall white-washed masonry chimney extends into planer brick walls that trace the seam between tempered grounds and the wilderness. It emerges in fragments and is anchored to the earth like something ancient, but against these thickened walls, dark stained cedar and glass enclosed rooms quietly survey a garden. When I spoke with architect Richard Williams, he talked of the house being neo-Palladian, and I liked that. It sits self-assured like a villa amidst a very workaday agrarian place, but there is a strongly calculated order to the site. In another project we’re sharing this month (page 30), landscape designer and UVA professor Cole Burrell created a private garden as a series of native species garden rooms that look back to and reference the established order of a 1931 house.
These projects show us that the staying power of place can endure when we shape our buildings to fit conditions of the land and shape our gardens as extensions of their contexts. And a rooted sense of place can also shape us as people.—Josh McCullar, Editor-at-large
Josh McCullar is the publisher of vamodern.com and practices with SMBW Architects in Richmond.