Architects in Charlottesville have big shoes to fill—founding-father-sized shoes. Our town is often represented by one of two iconic buildings designed by Jefferson: one private (Monticello) and one public (the Rotunda). Each has an outsized influence on what folks generally expect local architecture to look like.
In the middle of the last decade, a debate over architecture on UVA Grounds brought the public side of that equation into focus. School of Architecture faculty banded together in 2005 and formally expressed their dismay that, even as they tried to teach forward-looking design to their students, the university as a whole seemed to be trapped in the past. The Darden School of Business, built in 1996 in a neo-Jeffersonian style, came in for especially strong criticism.
The faculty’s open letter to the UVA community asked, “Why has the University commissioned so much mediocre architecture?…We stand for an architecture that preserves real histories without constructing fictitious ones.”
Meanwhile, as far back as the 1930s, architects both inside and outside the UVA fold had been quietly creating a collection of private, modernist-influenced homes in and around Charlottesville. Designing dwellings for themselves or for clients, architects from Edward Durell Stone—a major 20th-century figure who also designed D.C.’s Kennedy Center—to Ed Ford, one of the signers of the open letter, have imagined new ways that “home” can be conceived.
Sprinkled around Albemarle County and lurking on otherwise traditional city streets, these dozens of houses make up a collective body of modern work that challenges the red-brick, neoclassical legacy. Many modern architects say that such buildings actually honor the spirit of Jefferson better than any stylistic imitation of his work. “By whatever means we live up to our architectural heritage, let us at the very least commit ourselves to an architecture of ideas and not of taste,” writes Ford.
In fact, even beyond UVA, Charlottesville harbors a robust community of modern architects. Firms like Bushman Dreyfus Architects, Wolf Ackerman, Formwork, and Hays + Ewing Design Studio have all designed modern buildings locally and elsewhere. And they’ve influenced a younger generation of design-build offices like Alloy Workshop, STOA, and Latitude 38, which have broadened the appeal and accessibility of contemporary houses.
What follows is a sampling of local modern houses. Spanning decades of design history, they differ wildly from each other. Ford says modernism is not a style of building but a philosophy, and is troubled by misunderstandings about what modernism really means. “For a lot of people, it’s just the absence of trim or recognizable symbolic elements. That gives it a pretty negative connotation.” Modernism isn’t just about saying no, he insists: “To me, it’s not about the problems of traditional architecture; it’s about the possibilities of modern architecture.”
Let there be light
Carrie Meinberg Burke, a Yale-trained architect who’s practiced in Charlottesville since 1994, says those possibilities should speak to “the fundamentals of being human”: living in a shelter on the earth. “Things that are built in their time are the way to be,” she says.
She means “historical time,” but for her, time is also a building material, as basic as wood or concrete. Meinberg Burke’s own dwelling is a laboratory where time and light merge into a single entity. Sited north of downtown, the house, which Meinberg Burke designed 20 years ago in collaboration with her husband and partner Kevin Burke, is called the Timepiece House, and its main living space is, essentially, one large sundial.
The sun enters the house through a circular skylight, an oculus, and falls through the space as a crisply defined beam of light. Where it lands indicates the time of day (as the sun travels east to west) and the time of year (as the sun travels lower to the horizon in the winter and higher in summer). Walls, stairwells, and ceilings are exactly aligned with the various paths of the sun, so that the circular beam of light strikes specific points at important moments—like falling exactly along the tops of the stair rails on the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Nothing here is accidental; every part of the structure is significant, a physical manifestation of light’s presence. This white-walled, minimal space with a central stairwell and slightly curved, sloping ceiling interacts with the beam of light almost as though it were a living entity.
When I visited, I arrived roughly an hour before solar noon, and Meinberg Burke pointed out how the circular beam was hitting the concrete floor just to one side of the central stairs. She laid down two pens at the edge of the pool of light, and after only a minute they were covered by shadow. At this latitude, she explained, the earth is spinning at 788 miles an hour, so the beam moves steadily, almost rapidly if one is paying attention. During the course of the morning, the light had glided from a point high on the wall, down onto the floor, then across it. At solar noon, it would fall directly down the stairwell, landing on the floor in front of the bottom step.
To talk to Meinberg Burke about the design process for this house is to be immersed in heady theory—about the way we live, the way we build and how we perceive reality. She wants her buildings to change the way people see. “I wanted to create an atmosphere of all types of observation,” she says. “The goal was to make this an instrument or lab.” Her husband adds, “To me there’s almost a spiritual quality to the daylight in there, a kind of serenity and calm to it.”
The couple, who are partners in Parabola Architecture, have applied the lessons of Timepiece House to larger-scale projects, including a 2017 office building for Google in Sunnyvale, California. Like Timepiece House, the Google office invites light deep inside as both an aesthetic element and an essential, energy-saving function.
Burke says the Google office has been called “a building that has a soul,” perhaps due to the qualities it shares with Timepiece House: a shepherding of human perception, an emphasis on authentic materials and craft, and a connection to nature that goes beyond pretty views. In Burke’s words, a building can be a “focusing device” for the world’s basic rhythms.
On a steep hillside in the Meadowbrook Heights neighborhood is the austere concrete-and-glass house of WG Clark. When he designed this home in the mid-1990s, Clark created a dwelling that perches between two worlds.
From its spot amongst the trees, the house looks out and down over the lights and traffic of Barracks Road Shopping Center, Bodo’s, and the English Inn. It’s utterly distinct from its colonial and ranch-style neighbors: a three-story concrete-block edifice that presents a severely minimal façade to the street.
Clark is a revered local figure who’s left his modernist mark on UVA’s School of Architecture, both as a longtime professor and as the designer of a major 2008 addition to Campbell Hall, the A-School building—a landmark in UVA architectural history, coming as it did just a few years after the aforementioned debate over the Jeffersonian legacy on grounds. Robert McCarter will publish a new monograph about Clark’s work this fall.
First things first: The house is concrete block inside and out. Clark, who’d used block in several previous projects in partnership with architect Charles Menefee, knows that many people find this material hard to love. “People think they don’t like concrete block,” he says. But in his view, down-to-earth concrete has qualities that are almost organic, like wood. “Its color is quite similar to tree bark,” he says—allowing it to blend with the woodsy surroundings.
Also, it’s honest. “I am thrilled with the aspect of using impoverished things,” he says. “The opposite is that you use marble, and it’s pretentious.”
The block has more texture than one might expect, softening the acoustics indoors and providing a neutral backdrop for Clark’s carefully chosen furniture and objects. “If you’re working in a cool format of concrete block and poured-in-place concrete,” he says, “it helps if you bring in something ‘hot’ like that piece of mahogany.” The heavy slab of wood forms a bench along one edge of the living room, making a warm focal point against the block walls, huge glass windows, and concrete stairs with their subtly varied gray hues.
The house’s ingenious plan takes a small footprint and organizes it into an extremely spacious-feeling interior. “The scale is, in a sense, huge, while the size is tiny,” as Clark puts it. In the towering living/dining space, the entire north wall—the one facing Barracks Road—is built from glass block. This material allows plenty of light to enter the space while fracturing and muddying the view.
“It doesn’t behave like a window; you don’t look out there for information,” he says. Instead, the block takes the unglorious landscape below and makes it into an impressionistic field of color and light. “It transforms car headlights into candlelight,” Clark says. Much of the year, the woods also mask the view.
Clark may be the ideal designer for and occupant of this spot. “I have a penchant for landscapes that are not perfect,” he says.
The flawed landscape of Barracks Road’s commercial zone stands in contrast to one of Clark’s ideals as an architect—that his buildings actually improve rather than devalue their natural sites.
There is an aspect of purity here, as one’s attention is drawn to the play of light within spare surroundings. And there is a sense of alchemy: a site on the ragged border between two faces of the city, transformed through architecture into something more than the sum of its imperfect parts.
“A set of drawers”
Jim Tuley, who joined UVA’s School of Architecture in 1968, was one of the first architects to create a substantial body of modern work around Charlottesville, designing nearly two dozen houses in the city and Albemarle County. Though Tuley—who died in 1994—designed modern houses in a brick-and-white-column town, most of his projects are relatively quiet about their break with tradition. The home of Pam Friedman and Ron Bailey is different.
Located in a historic district in North Downtown, on a street that’s lined with timeworn Victorians, their house cuts a tall profile on its steep lot, presenting an asymmetrical, geometric façade to the street. It’s modern enough to have earned some neighbors’ ire during its construction. “How dare you put such a house in this neighborhood?” they said to Pam Black, who with Theo van Groll commissioned the house in 1989.
Nonetheless, the house is now a landmark, proof that even historic Charlottesville can admit an occasional contemporary thread into its tapestry. “It makes the street more interesting because it’s a little bit of a surprise,” says Friedman. Given that her home is the last one Tuley designed, one might say he went out with a bang.
Even in the design phase, the house was a bit of a stretch for this spot. Van Groll (also an architect and a former UVA faculty member) owned the lot, and gained permission to build on the narrow, steep site only because it was grandfathered into the city’s minimum site requirements.
He and Black turned to Tuley because they liked his previous work, and because Van Groll thought he’d be better off not designing the house alone. “I’ve always thought that when architects do their own houses, they would benefit from someone looking over their shoulders,” he says, “because it’s so easy to fall into your own traps.”
Of course, Van Groll did bring plenty of ideas to the table. Whereas most of Tuley’s houses are single-story affairs clad in redwood siding, this one is a three-story stucco edifice that harkens to the 17th-century canal houses of Van Groll’s native Holland. He also contributed built-in cabinetry in the kitchen and several other rooms.
Tuley devised a scheme to connect the three stories with a long stairwell on the north side of the house. A curved wall on one side “activates the space,” as Van Groll puts it, and big windows and skylights flood it with light. While the ground floor provides storage and utility room, the living space is on the second and third floors. It’s been described as a “set of drawers,” slotted into the hillside.
Otherwise, the house hews to a rectilinear geometry that owes much to the Dutch De Stijl movement of the 1920s (think Mondrian). Case in point is the front façade, where the second- and third-floor porches look as though they’ve been carved out of the house rather than tacked on.
“It’s a very easy house to live in,” says Friedman, who with Bailey bought the house in 1998. “Many houses have little bits of architect-ego poking through, and this house doesn’t.”
One of Charlottesville’s true hidden gems is a midcentury house known as Stone’s Throw. In 1952, a UVA doctor and his wife, Charles and Gladys Frankel, commissioned a house by New York-based Edward Durell Stone, a celebrity architect who later dreamed up New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Kennedy Center in D.C.
Though it’s not known why the couple chose Stone or what they hoped their house would be like, the house he designed for them ended up serving as Mrs. Frankel’s home for an impressive 64 years. Pedigree aside, it nearly disappears behind its plain brick façade on a curving street in Meadowbrook Heights.
Yet it’s a remarkable structure that, once approached and entered, delivers drama while eschewing traditional ornamentation. The house has all the hallmarks of its historical moment, when the International Style was bringing construction into the modern age. Its single story split into two levels, it’s organized around connections to the outdoors: two smaller bedrooms open onto a private courtyard, and the entire rear wall is made of glass, letting the master bedroom and the primary living space drink in a view of the large, green backyard.
Stone’s Throw embarked on a new chapter of its history in 2016, when it was sold for the first time. New owners Curry and Andre Uflacker fell in love with its design but wanted to update finishes— “There was a lot of heavy carpeting and silk drapes,” says Curry—and in some ways, to restore Stone’s original vision for the property. Stone, who died in 1978, had originally specified modernist furniture in his plans, like Eames chairs and Herman Miller desks, but the Frankels’ traditional furniture and wallpaper made for an uneasy match with his clean, horizontal lines.
Joe Wheeler, the architect hired by the Uflackers to envision a renovation, counts himself as “a big fan of Stone” and relished the opportunity to enter a dialogue with Stone’s work. The renovation’s major goals were to update finishes, modernize bathrooms, and reconfigure the kitchen, which was tucked away into a small galley space. Now, it’s continuous with the dining and living areas and much more inviting to cook and onlookers alike.
“What would Stone do today?” was Curry Uflacker’s style guide during the renovation. Owners and architect chose finishes and fixtures that are contemporary but harmonize with the original structure: minimal white cabinetry, gray cork flooring, and streamlined automatic blinds to replace the heavy drapes along the south wall of glass.
In his practice, called Hauskraft, and his teaching at Virginia Tech, Wheeler has largely focused on modular and prefabricated housing. He designed new kitchen and bathroom spaces that could be prefabricated and quickly installed. The kitchen, for example, consists of three “cartridges”—two banks of cabinets and an island, all designed to be built off-site. He admits this approach has confounded builders, but believes that forward-looking methods are a way to pay homage to the original design.
“The renovation approach should be innovative to our time like Stone’s work was innovative to his time,” Wheeler says.
“Victorian” might be the last adjective on a visitor’s mind as she approaches the North Downtown home of Ed and Jane Ford, with its roof shaped like a butterfly’s wings and its exposed steel structure, painted bright yellow and green. Nor would that term seem to apply to its interior, where more painted-steel beams, posts, and railings pop out against modern white walls. Yet Ed Ford says that 19th-century buildings were an important influence on his design for this house, built in 2002.
Many houses built today, he says, “are incredibly chopped up into lots and lots of little rooms.” On the other hand, many modernist architects have designed “flowing space with no division.” In Victorian houses, Ford found a middle ground: “rooms that are connected.” His home echoes this idea, with definite separations between rooms that are, nonetheless, linked closely to each other.
The large kitchen, for example, follows a galley layout, with ample cabinets and workspace running along the long walls. Though it’s a distinct space, two openings connect it to the dining room, where one of the design’s boldest ideas is on display. Two walls of this room are entirely made of glass, and a dining table appears to pierce one transparent wall, continuing for several feet outside. The glass tabletop rests on a red steel beam.
Lines blur here between inside and outside, even as the traditional idea of a separate room for dining (which is “also very Victorian,” Jane points out) remains intact.
Its footprint squeezed by the narrow outline of the site, the Ford house achieves its 3,000-square-foot size by extending upward. As one ventures upstairs, it becomes clear how the house’s support structure makes possible its lofty, light-filled interior. Halfway up the stairs is Ford’s modernist adaptation of another 19th-century idea, the “inglenook”: a fireplace with seating. From this perch, the view soars all the way up through another one-and-a-half stories: wide windows, half-walls around a mezzanine library, and a green steel V supporting the butterfly roof.
Combining steel and wood to support the house speaks to both function and style. In the more intimate, low-ceilinged spaces, the wooden structure predominates. In the public rooms, the addition of steel allows openness. Revealing the steel elements and even emphasizing them with bright paint was Ford’s way of “designing a building that explained the structure,” as he writes in his 2009 book Five Houses, Ten Details, which deeply explores the design process for this home.
Under the roof, clerestory windows admit light that falls down through the entire height of the dwelling. “One of the most wonderful things about the house is the light,” says Jane. “If there’s a pink sunrise, the whole room with be bathed in pink light.”