We’re all affected by design. A mediocre building, says VMDO founding principal Bob Moje, degrades the world we all share.
“Every act of building is embedded with enormous potential to make a difference—resources are leveraged or wasted, the human condition is enhanced or too often harmed in countless ways, which is tragic when you see how a really good building can have so many positive impacts on people,” he says.
As the lead on all of VMDO’s public K-12 projects, he spends much time researching ways to make each design more effective, like a recent project with Buckingham County Schools to transform the process of healthier eating. “That may surprise people,” he says, “but we have been involved with a number of research efforts looking at ways that our built environments can help.”
Ultimately, it’s a group effort, and Moje says there are more ways to make the world better than there are people to do it.
“The next piece of that is to get more of the populace to be aware of our built environment,” he says, “and become more involved in discussing—and ultimately understanding—the potential for making all of our lives better.”
Why architecture? Architecture—or at least good architecture—has the power to help change the condition of all living things for the better. It is a lasting contribution (relative to other ways one can spend their work life). And it provides a neverending set of challenges and opportunities. There are no right answers, but there are an infinite series of better answers.
What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design? I grew up in New Jersey just across the George Washington Bridge from New York City, in a small town that had exactly one building of any architectural quality—an old church built in the 1600s. In middle school, I was placed in a mechanical drawing class. I found I was pretty good at that, so I signed up for it in high school and completed all four years of courses in two years. My mother suggested I go talk to the one architect in town and he agreed to talk to me about what an architect does. I asked him for a job and he said no three times before he finally said I could come in for an hour, two afternoons after school. The second week, it was three afternoons. The next week, it was every day. I was 15 and got paid $1.25 an hour. That was in 1970 and I was a sophomore in high school. By the time I was a senior, I was done with school at 11am and went straight to work—at least 30 hours a week. I worked there through high school and summers in college and briefly after finishing college until VMDO got going. We’re now entering our 40th year. (It’s a pretty boring employment history.)
Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you? I was very fortunate to find UVA’s school of architecture. I arrived in 1972 shortly after coeducation and the second full year of its transition from a five-year program to a four-two program (four-year undergraduate non-professional degree and a two-year professional degree). That has proven to have been a great circumstance for me.
Bob Vickery, who was the chairman of the undergraduate program and the person that designed the four-two program, was the most important teacher I had, although I didn’t have him for design until late in graduate school. He taught the introductory class “Concepts in Architecture,” which framed my thinking about architecture. In that course, he asked the question, “What does it mean to make a mark upon the land?” That question, for me, has gotten more profound over time and is still at the heart of everything that I do.
How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you? It is critical and one of the great failings of modern architecture and the so-called international style. I say that because that was used as a way of promoting one style as the answer for any situation. Fortunately, with time, there has been much work in re-exploring regionalism, and the importance of design responding to its particular place and site. The place where we build is imbued with climate, geology, history, ecologies and cultural uniqueness and it is part of a fabric of interconnected infrastructure, of transportation, utilities and countless other qualities that are all pieces and factors that good design solutions ought to be taking into consideration. Working with nature instead of trying to overcome it is a value that we need to all be focused on.
We start all of our K-12 projects with research into the site and place, trying to uncover the qualities of that which we can use to further the mission of the project. An example of that would be an elementary school we are about to open in Arlington, which, because of growth and crowding and lack of land, is being built on the site of an existing middle school, so two schools on one site. It appears to be a generic suburban neighborhood, but we researched the land and found that John Glenn had once lived across the street and trained for his space missions by running around the middle school. The name of our new school will be Discovery Elementary School and is themed around the voyage of discovery. Discovery was the name of the space shuttle that Glenn rode on his last trip into outer space.
What’s in the studio at the moment? The school in Arlington is designed to be a net zero school, which means it will use very little energy and at the same time produce more energy than the building uses through a photovoltaic array on its roof. Even under current utility rates, the cost of all of that is projected to be cash positive in a very short time and, if rates go up, will be making the school system money even sooner. We have projects at both Charlottesville High School and Western Albemarle. We have a preschool and a new elementary school in Harrisonburg that we are excited about and are just putting the research group together to look at some exciting new developments in lighting that we think have both health and learning benefits. We are working with the Miller School to plan for their future campus and building needs. And we are just starting on a new high school for New Orleans as that city and school system continue to recover and build back from the Katrina disaster. That will be our third project there.
How would you assess the state of architecture in our region? Getting better all of the time. This region is fortunate to have many talented architects—perhaps the highest per capita of most anywhere in this country. That may be seen as a problem by some—is there enough work for all of the architects here? I think we all need to rethink our definition or how we think about what architecture is. It’s a field that has the potential to make almost anything better by thinking better about what something can be. Stanford has gotten publicity over their “D School,” which is not a school at all but a non-degree place within the university where faculty and students apply to spend time problem solving with “design thinking.” Architects have been doing this forever. Perhaps we need simply to be applying our talents and skills more broadly.
I believe there are more ways to make the world better than there are talented people to do it. The next piece of that is to get more of the populace to be more aware of our built environment and become more involved in discussing and ultimately understanding the potential for making all of our lives better. Other cultures are more advanced in this than we are. Barcelona, for example, has remade itself multiple times in its history. Their people believe that they have the right to speak up and have a voice in all aspects of what they would like their city to be. Since it’s the last question, I will venture out on to the thin ice, using a local example. The Route 29/250 Bypass issue has been discussed for decades in this community and I am not taking sides, but as a community, there has been lots of discussion on traffic, some on environmental impact, some on economics, but almost none on aesthetics. Does anyone in this community think that what is being created is what anyone would want from an aesthetic point of view? That is maybe a provocative way of saying the state of architecture (which I have broadened to include the built environment) will only really get better when more of the community starts looking, talking and caring about what this region wants to be each and every time we make a mark upon the land.
What inspires you? I am an optimist: beauty and elegance in all forms. I use both of those words together because there is something special in beauty when all the pieces and parts are in harmony and anything more is not only not needed but would detract, and that is where elegance comes in. Thorncrown Chapel by Fay Jones is an example of this. A little over a year ago, I was asked to chair the international conference on architecture for education in Barcelona, Spain, and as part of that, we visited Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and had behind-the-scenes tours and discussions with the designers and builders of that amazing building. It may be the best and most elegant building man has achieved.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia? The short answer is that I came to the University of Virginia and loved it here. Early on, there was thought and discussion of heading to the places people think of for architecture (New York, Boston, Chicago) and particularly back then the thinking (and it was mostly true) was that a career in architecture would be limited by a place like Central Virginia. For reasons of lifestyle and quality of life, staying here has been easy. We have, over the decades, slowly proved that thinking wrong and, with technology and perseverance, gotten to the point that we can practice anywhere and compete with architecture firms from anywhere (at least in the niches that we have chosen to specialize).
On process: How does it begin? It starts with that question, or some form of it: “What does it mean to make a mark upon the land?” or, what can this project do to be somehow better for the people that use it or are affected by it? How can this one be just a little bit better? Our brain is what sets us apart from other living things, but using them to shape the world that we are creating has a long way to go. We too often simply repeat some form of what has been done before without thinking deeply about the implications of that. It’s the architectural equivalent of the parenting remark “because I am the parent and I said so.” Just as we pass family issues and problems from one generation to the next, we pass along what we design and build simply because that is the way it is, which is an absurd notion when you consider the resources and technology available. So we do research, we look at what other resources might be available to inform our thinking. We probe our clients’ thinking; we take them on trips to look at places that may be a bit different from what they have experienced. We always look at multiple options, and we always work as a team and with a belief that anybody’s idea or thought is valid and deserves to be heard and considered, including the client’s.