From the editor-at-large: Formal influences

Mirador, built in 1842 in Greenwood. Photo: Robert Llewellyn Mirador, built in 1842 in Greenwood. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

In the Piedmont, large red brick houses have always had a certain kind of monumental grandeur in the landscape. They are Virginia’s architecture—a tall central house, often hyphenated with ancillary spaces to the sides, large and formal, yet quiet and elegant—and were the standard bearer of sophistication in their time.

I admire them most often in late autumn when my wife and I take day trips from Richmond before winter ties us down, and while a modernist at heart, I will stop the car for a grand home. We have them for miles along Monument Avenue and along the James River west of the city. But in Albemarle, they are woven into a rolling tapestry of orchards, fields, and vineyards that spread widely across a verdant Eden and evoke an idea in addition to a place.

When making architecture, I like to take a step away from the drawings, look back at them, and squint my eyes a bit. It blurs away the unnecessary. If the whole thing hangs together well enough, it will read as a distillation of a few singular gestures. And, when that happens, it’s usually a really good sign early on that the idea is strong.

So, when I first became aware of architect Dick Shank’s modernist home several years ago, I quite admired its compositional purity. Two wide, red brick chimneys set against three red brick hierarchically placed pavilions with “arms” that frame a view. The house follows the logic of that grand Piedmont lineage, yet is anything but traditional. There is nothing superfluous about its massing or detailing, but its formal—if not totemic —presence in a clearing on a mound in a woodland setting is comfortingly familiar. This, I thought, is modern architecture for Virginia, and it belongs here in a way that a Rick Joy house belongs in Tucson—fitting in without turning wistful.

Inside, the home’s transformation is fulfilled. At a glance, you might not be in Virginia, but large windows are apertures, and the foreground is a visceral counterpoint to beyond. Spaces are thoroughly modern, bright, and exacting in detail. There are few but very deft finishes in white, stainless steel, and wood tones that make an almost universally timeless palette.

In this month’s ABODE, Shank’s house  amidst a tradition-bound rural neighborhood shows how architecture can respond to the cultural influences of its context with relevance for its own time in order to serve the precise needs of its occupant. In town, we’re featuring a tight, Scandinavian-inspired, all-white glossy kitchen , and a Downtown landscape (p.30) with a skillful overlay of stone and wood plank walks that rise just above the ground, and seem to float across a tightly bound urban garden. Across these projects and at varying scales, it is the endeavor to manifest both material and compositional clarity as a unifying strategy that brings an idea and a place together.—Josh McCullar, Editor-at-large