Complex forms: Architect Bob Anderson on art and the built environment

Among Bob Anderson's projects is a residential complex overlooking the James River. Photo: Stephen Barling Among Bob Anderson’s projects is a residential complex overlooking the James River. Photo: Stephen Barling

Practice makes perfect. It’s an adage for a reason—the more you do something, the more comfortable with it and adept at it you become. That was architect Bob Anderson’s thinking, anyway, when, as an 8-year-old, he saw an illustration of Albrecht Dürer’s wood carving of a rhinoceros from 1515.

Bob Anderson. Photo: Amy Jackson
Bob Anderson. Photo: Amy Jackson

“I fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to draw like that,” Anderson says, “so I copied it several times, using a No. 2 pencil.” The artist continued drawing that way until he developed his own style, which in many ways still mimics the forms found in traditional etchings. 

Anderson started Little Rhino for both his drawings and his architectural projects, in homage to Dürer’s carving and in appreciation of the endangered rhinoceros, a cause that became important to Anderson during his childhood in Hawaii. “Since I consider myself today a wildlife conservationist as well as an architect, artist and author, the rhino seemed like a good logo and I felt like the name was fitting.”

We asked Anderson to tell us more about how art affects his architecture, what has the biggest influence on his work and what’s on the board now.

Currently on Anderson's boards is a research center on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Image: Courtesy Bob Anderson
Currently on Anderson’s boards is a research center on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Image: Courtesy Bob Anderson

Why architecture?

My father was a retired army colonel and the family had always assumed I would go to West Point. One day an old friend of the family, who had always seemed interested in my drawing ability, told me that he couldn’t imagine me in the army and suggested that I look into architecture. At 17, I visited two architecture schools and as soon as I stuck my head in the door of the first one, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Looking back, I realize that I had always been fascinated by another family friend’s house that had been carefully built by unemployed ship cabinetmakers during the Depression and, to this day, I still carry the memories of beautifully detailed houses we visited in Hawaii and, what was quite modern at the time, a spectacular country club in a lush garden-like setting in the mountains overlooking Honolulu. I guess the lure of architecture (as well as art) was always in me.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

Chance. My wife and I were married in France and were planning on living and working in New York but came to Charlottesville to visit my mother, who lived here. The head of the French department at UVA met my wife at a party my mother had hosted and offered her a job. The next day, I answered a want ad for an architect in the paper and was hired that afternoon. We never went back to New York.

Anderson recently finished Piedmont Place, a mixed-use building in Crozet. Image: Courtesy Bob Anderson
Anderson recently finished Piedmont Place, a mixed-use building in Crozet. Image: Courtesy Bob Anderson

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

I grew up in Hawaii from the age of 4 until I was 9 1/2 and started drawing at 4. My parents drank and argued a lot and drawing was my way of escaping into my own world. I never stopped drawing and am both an artist and an architect today. The drawing was always a key component to architecture for me. Today, with computer-aided drafting (CAD), it has become less of a necessity but, for me—I think of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose drawings were just wonderful; Le Corbusier, who could paint and sculpt; Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a most talented water colorist—drawing, painting, in fact, all art is part of being what I call a truly complete architect. Architects are artists, after all, and architecture is the most complex of the art forms.

A cottage in Charlottesville designed by Anderson utilized the work of many local artisans. Photo: Courtesy Bob Anderson
A cottage in Charlottesville designed by Anderson utilized the work of many local artisans. Photo: Courtesy Bob Anderson

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

College was a wild up-and-down ride for me. I was very unsettled emotionally when I started college and had a lot of trouble with any and all figures of authority. There was one associate professor who was just out of grad school. He was a sculptor on the architectural faculty and from day one I felt like he treated me as an equal, or at least with respect. I was able to relate really well to him and to this day consider him the one who got me over all those agonizing, self-created hurdles that seemed to always get in my way. Interestingly, all the teachers whom I remember most were either artists or architectural historians. Some of the architecture profs were okay, but most never really got through to me.

On process: How does it begin?

It’s different with every job. I always like to walk the site with a new client while the client talks about what they are looking for. I never do my initial designs on the computer. I start with free-hand sketches and will often do one or two while on that initial walk around the site.

What inspires you?

Great architecture, art, music and writing. Then there’s nature, of course. The first time I ever visited Wright’s Fallingwater was way back when they had just opened it to the public. At that time, the entire site where it sits was filled with sculptures by some of the early 20th century’s best sculptors. You had architecture, art and nature all beautifully blended together, and when I first stood there and looked at it, a big chill went quivering down my spine.

A residence on the slope of Buck's Elbow Mountain. Photo: David Sagrin
A residence on the slope of Buck’s Elbow Mountain. Photo: David Sagrin

What are you working on now?

Osa Verde, a tropical organic agricultural research and educational center for Osa Conservation on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and Piedmont Place, a three-story, mixed-use building in Crozet. Two totally different kinds of projects.

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