Familial settings: Checking in with architect Scott Weiss

Courtesy Scott Weiss Courtesy Scott Weiss

We caught up with Scott Weiss to see what he’s currently working on, how he ended up practicing in Virginia, and why a 1974 action drama helped inspire him to become an architect. Here’s what he had to say.

Why architecture?
I have always been artistic, but I have never felt that I was particularly great at any medium other than architecture, which I consider an art—an expensive-to-create art with a permanence and often an influence in the way we and those around us live and experience that life. How great is art that can do that?

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
I didn’t. I chose to practice in California, however for practical reasons, my family and I decided to relocate from California and we checked out Charlottesville, as I had not been back in the 20 or so years since I graduated from the School of Architecture at UVA. We found it a beautiful small town perfect for raising children. In addition, there was a familiarity in the architecture in Virginia that was less present in Arizona (where I went to graduate school) and California. It seemed more like “home.”

 What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?
I knew before I knew the word “architect” that I wanted to design buildings for a living. I always enjoyed building with Legos and drawing. I saw my mother editing a floor plan in a magazine in order to suit her—as if she might build it one day—and I began to do the same. That was followed by my constantly (in my free time, in school, wherever) designing what I thought were luxurious homes. I loved to look at home plan and design magazines and really became fascinated with what was then called contemporary architecture.

I vividly remember sharp angles, curved walls, and obnoxious interior colors of designs that we would now consider very ’70s, and I drank it all in. I saw The Towering Inferno and besides the excitement of the actual movie, I was blown away by the modern skyscraper, the huge, vaulted interior spaces. I tried to design skyscrapers, not even bored by the fact that each floor was basically the same. I would go to the library and find old issues of Architectural Record and Xerox floor plans of buildings that I found fascinating—larger, different types of buildings such as hospitals, college buildings, but also cutting-edge houses.

Scott Weiss. Photo: Christian Hommel
Scott Weiss. Photo: Christian Hommel

Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
I was always lacking in confidence when I saw other students doing what I wanted to do, and sometimes better. It took me a while to find my groove, to be able to defend my choices in design despite criticism or the fact that someone else had a well-designed and well-executed project. I honestly do not even remember most of my undergraduate studio professors from UVA. The one professor who really stands out in my memory was Max Underwood, who taught an urban design class at the Arizona State University College of Architecture and Urban Design, where I received my master’s degree. He taught us how cities developed through history and how their transformations reflected history itself. His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. He used the term “urban fabric,” which I thought perfectly described a city and the organic way it develops, like a quilt with no real master plan. Upon our first building design review, he looked at my symmetric design, laughed, and said, “You’re the one from UVA, right?”

On process: How does it begin?
When I design a project, the site is the first thing that dictates some basic starting points. Where is the view? Where is the sun? How does the site affect the construction or how would the building on the site interact (if applicable) to other nearby buildings or natural features? I discuss the program and budget with the client, and hopefully get a solid idea of what they are thinking. Though I’ll be honest, by that time, I often have some idea of how I think the design should proceed. I love when a client provides me with images from magazines or from websites that illustrate styles or spaces that they find appealing. I love even more when a client sees my vision of what their project can be.

What inspires you?
Beautiful, often intimate, spaces. Not just the spaces, though, but the perception one gets when passing from one space to the other. One thing I remember about Max Underwood leading his students through the intricacies of European cities is his emphasis not on the actual piazza we were in, but how one—without a map—can experience the progression from one space to the other, noting a distant campanile or church dome beyond, and how these elements made the often-irregular transition from place to place seem natural. It was like exploring, discovering, with a surprise here and a pizza and beer there.

I am also inspired by the way various materials can be used creatively with each other and by views that can be framed or enhanced by architecture. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, I see architecture as an extension of the outdoors, something to work with nature and its surroundings, not dominate over it.

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?
I believe the previous question really begins the discussion of “sense of place,” as the buildings we passed from piazza to piazza (and pizza to pizza) were for the most part not as monumental as the whole picture. Not every building can be the church or the city hall. Most are part of the urban fabric (see what a great term that is?), the “boring” stitches of red and green and blue without which the fabric could not exist. They are what the monuments complement.

What’s in the studio at the moment?
I am excited to be designing a long, linear house on a wooded bluff overlooking the Shenandoah River, with a stone spine separating the circulation space from the individual rooms, whose river-facing walls will be comprised of large windows providing expansive views of the river, and—almost more importantly—when open, will provide the constant sound of rushing water. I also am beginning work on a remodel/addition for a small (albeit four-story) home near Downtown Charlottesville, which has a lot of potential and a client who sees that. In addition, I do a lot of design work for a prolific home builder in the area, which I find fun.