The accidental architect: A college elective changed the course of Jeff Bushman’s life

Jeff Bushman's goal as an architect "is to create places people love...each design project changes a site or city in slow, incremental ways, improving the site or ecosystem or setting bit by bit." Photos courtesy Bushman Dreyfus Architects Jeff Bushman’s goal as an architect “is to create places people love…each design project changes a site or city in slow, incremental ways, improving the site or ecosystem or setting bit by bit.” Photos courtesy Bushman Dreyfus Architects

As a University of Virginia undergraduate, Jeff Bushman majored briefly in science, thinking he’d one day attend medical school. An architecture class put the brakes on that plan, though, and the future Bushman Dreyfus Architects principal’s course was set. He recently spoke to us about influential teachers at UVA, why consilience inspires him, and the wide range of projects he’s working on.

Why architecture?

Because practicing architecture is so much fun. We have a blast and are very, very challenged at the same time. What will keep our clients happy? What will keep the water out of the building? What technical decisions will keep a building watertight and structurally sound for the ages. What aesthetic decisions will keep people loving this structure for centuries and therefore protect and preserve it? I love those questions.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

Virginia chose me as much as I chose Virginia. I enrolled at UVA intending to major in a science, but that plan was derailed by an architecture elective I took in my second year and by a burst of encouragement from some teachers, so I transferred to the architecture school. After my undergraduate degree I stuck around for a masters. I immediately started teaching architectural design at UVA, and did so for almost 10 years, while slowing building the practice.

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?

Itinerant, undisciplined, and adventurous. I’m the oldest of seven precocious Catholic Navy brats, and we moved every two years growing up. I split my high school years across both sides of the country, focused on hard science and studio art, even jewelry-making. We were constantly making things under the leadership of my mother. “Architect” was on her short list for me.

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

I owe a debt of gratitude to them all. I had no idea as a young student what architecture was, what design was, or what the links between architecture and art-with-a-capital-A were until I studied under Ralph Lerner. Leon Krier, the enfant-terrible Belgian urban planner, is and was a ridiculous purist on many levels, but so fascinating and committed. He was completely horrified at the state of contemporary architectural and urban culture—this was the ’80s—that “because he was an architect” he refused to build anything at all. Highly amusing, very challenging, and very sincere, he taught us so much about the traditional European city, about craft, and guilds, and materials, and making buildings by hand. Jacque Robertson, Mario Valmarana—I could go on. I’ve been blessed with fantastic teachers.

On process: How does it begin?

Well always, of course, with a client. That is the difference between “design” and “art.” This analogy can be a little glib, but we sometimes think of ourselves as design doctors: We take a history, we consult with specialists and conjure up a diagnosis and a remedy for the problem at hand. Our bedside manner needs to be good. We need to do our homework. Having said that, once we have a client’s brief in hand, and have a good feeling for what our client’s intentions might be, the path to a solution always begins with the site, whether big or small, urban or rural. The context and the setting will have the answers. Landscape is very important to us. We used to say every building has three constituencies: our clients, the profession, and the public. But now we need to add another: Mother Earth. Energy use and how a structure is heated and cooled, the origin of building materials and their chemical composition are critically important questions these days.

What inspires you?

Consilience. I love people from radically different backgrounds working toward a common goal. I love ideas from opposed corners of the intellectual spectrum pointing in the same direction. I love it when science and art and culture overlap. When old and new conspire toward the same end, this is what brings energy to a good street, or when a “new” house on an “old” site dovetail perfectly. Healthy ecosystems inspire me.

What are you working on now?

My colleagues and I are working on greenhouses, barns, a winery, a lake, a tiny art gallery in NOLA, a few big new houses, a church. We’re helping families rethink their domiciles. One notable project is a retreat center on the Potomac River for academics working on the problem of religious and identity-based conflict. We are working on a women’s health clinic in Kakata, Liberia. Closer to home, this summer we’re helping Live Arts redo its lobbies and main theater. And after many studies commissioned from many firms over the years, we’re helping out with the city’s West Main Street project—creating guidelines so that as new buildings come along they play nicely with historic fabric on the street and with adjacent residential neighborhoods, and create a beautiful streetscape for bicycles, pedestrians, commerce, and cafés.

Among Bushman Dreyfus Architects’ projects is the Rudolph House in Albemarle County, with a garden concept by Pete O’Shea of Siteworks Studio.


How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?

Architecture is about life on earth. Our goal as designers is to create places people love. To extend the doctor analogy: Every project is a surgery and an intervention, cutting into an existing site or structure. For us “new” and “old” are always tangled up in a fascinating conversation. Rarely are sites or settings improved by means of a radical makeover; each design project changes a site or city in slow, incremental ways, improving the site or ecosystem or setting bit by bit. So we constantly ask ourselves if our small project is making a positive contribution to the big picture.

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

Central Virginia is a lovely place to practice. We have a world-class architecture school. We have a World Heritage site down the street—one of the most beautiful spaces on the planet. Charlottesville is blessed with talent and resources. Our citizens are both educated about, and interested in, buildings and spaces that speak to the culture. Our town benefits from a source of tremendous design energy: the tension between those who rail against the Jeffersonian red-brick-white-trim paradigm versus those who embrace it. We think that conversation is a positive thing. We love the authentic “old” and much of our practice is devoted to preserving it. We love an authentic “new” as well. Captions: The owners of this southern Albemarle home told Bushman Dreyfus Architects that their house, which sits on a 50-acre wooded plot, should embrace the outdoors and look contemporary. The complex design of the dwelling is reminiscent of origami, with nooks and crannies inside and out. A wall of glass on the south side of the living room lets in light and provides a view of the woods. Previous page: East Aurora, New York house. Among Bushman Dreyfus Architects recent projects are Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyard; the Desmond-Levy House in Albemarle County; and the Rudolph House, also in Albemarle County, with a garden concept by Pete O’Shea of Siteworks Studio.

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