Start to finish: Checking in with Architect Bruce Wardell

The Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, The Crossings at Fourth and Preston and the Belmont Lofts are among Bruce Wardell's local projects. Photo courtesy Bruce Wardell. The Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, The Crossings at Fourth and Preston and the Belmont Lofts are among Bruce Wardell’s local projects. Photo courtesy Bruce Wardell.

We asked brwarchitects principal Bruce Wardell to give us insight into the state of architecture in the area, what inspires him, and why he chooses to practice in Virginia. Here’s what he had to say.

Why architecture?

When we describe the best cities in the world, they are filled with places that have been intentionally created (designed). Whether it’s a vernacular neighborhood along the edge of a river or the High Line in Manhattan, each of these places has been designed. When we find beauty in the natural landscape, the language we use refers to a place which has been sculpted, carved, or painted. This language infers a sculptor, a carver, and a painter. The best music is created by the best composers and our best buildings are created by our best architects.

Architecture is different, however, than painting, composing music, or creating a sculpture. As a civic art, it is inherently collaborative. A client has a set of needs to be met: budget, schedule, design. In the larger context, the building needs to meet the requirements of civic codes and ordinances; the finished project will relate to its landscape and its neighborhood as part of its civic environment. Architecture, therefore, provides a unique combination of creativity, composition, collaboration, management, and administration. The best architects bring all of these resources and skills to each project in creating our best places.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

The initial decision to practice in Virginia was different than the permanent decision to stay in Virginia. After graduate school I worked for three and a half years in the Peace Corps. Being out of the country for that length of time, I had contacts in only two areas—Charlottesville and New Jersey, where I grew up. After the Peace Corps, I gave myself a month to find work in Charlottesville. During that month, I was offered a position with Shank and Associates. Their good, modern portfolio was very interesting to me and led to my decision to stay in Charlottesville.

The decision to establish my practice in Charlottesville permanently had more to do with a developing interest in the civic role architects play. I believed that in a community with the size and character of Charlottesville, I could have a meaningful impact over the extended period of time I anticipated practicing architecture. An urban designer named Stroud Watson spoke of a goal of “finishing to build the cities we have started.” I was familiar enough with Charlottesville to know that there were a number of significant opportunities to do that in this community.

Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher that had a lasting impact on you?

The School of Architecture at UVA was in a major transition regarding the approach to teaching architecture, which spanned both my undergraduate and graduate experiences at the school. During the undergraduate years, architecture was taught somewhat like a series of apprenticeships. Each semester, projects were given to us, and we worked with a professor who would have specific ideas about how the project should be solved. Architecture was a craft that needed to be learned from a master craftsman.

During graduate school, a new community of faculty believed architecture was a language with vocabulary, syntax, and meaning. We read Gaston Bachelard, Mircea Eliade, and Christian Norberg-Schulz. When we designed, our work had to mean something, as well as be beautiful. During those years, I developed a close relationship with James Tuley and worked in his studio part time. His commitment to a high level of craft and modernism in his residential practice provided a strong foundation for my work in the following years.

In his early years, Jim had worked in Nepal, which also began to influence my decision to join the Peace Corps. A second professor, Bruce Abbey, who had worked in Michael Graves’ office, was a key figure in making the connection between craft and language. Interestingly, Bruce had also worked in the Peace Corps—in Tunisia —early in his career.

What inspires you?

Music: A small book of lectures Igor Stravinsky gave at Harvard called Poetics of Music has provided the most enduring inspiration over the years.

Architecture: The work of Renzo Piano, Bohlin, Cywinksi, Jackson, and Cutler-Anderson display inspiring examples of how composition, craft, and context contribute to creating extraordinary work.

Landscape: The High Line and the Lawn/Gardens. Both of these places, although very different, combine a deep civic sense of place while providing a variety of intimate and personal experiences.

What’s in the studio at the moment?

A new Carpenter Gothic Sanctuary for a congregation in Richmond; a private library; two new medical office buildings; an addition to the educational facilities for an historic church in downtown Fredericksburg; the renovation of a 1960s office building; and a new modern farmhouse on a 35-acre orchard. The farmhouse will generate as much energy as it uses, collect rainwater for irrigation, and become the first phase of a transformation of the orchard’s monoculture into a bio-diverse environmentally and economically sustainable commercial farm.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?

Obviously, there continue to be examples of projects being done in our community that tend to be somewhat generic and less rooted to our specific community and moment in history. These tend to be projects which could exist in any city anywhere in the country and lack a kind of “rootedness” that makes the design of our community something specific. This is not to say that new work needs to be red brick and white trim, but rather that the more successful projects take up a dialogue with the history and context of our community. There are some extraordinarily important and interesting opportunities in the community that involve the connection of the University with Downtown, the connection to the district south of Downtown across the tracks, the reclamation of Preston Avenue into a more healthy urban district, and the work surrounding the replacement of the Belmont Bridge. All these will have an enormous impact on the architectural character of our community. As I mentioned earlier, “We need to finish building the city we began.”