How does a project begin for architect Adams Sutphin? First, “A question, and then listening,” he says. “And then a series of questions that become a puzzle, and then the quest to put the pieces together rationally.” That’s how he views it from his end, but Sutphin actually prides himself on taking some of the mystery out of the design process—“less drama, no trauma” as he puts it.
A 30-plus-year veteran of the industry, Sutphin started his career in commercial architecture and interiors before moving to residential. We asked him about his current projects, what inspires him, and how your MoMA holiday card might have featured one of his designs.
Architecture is a great mix of fine art and the fun of building things—both of which I enjoyed as a kid, and appreciate more now.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
Just look around! Born here, schooled here, never want to leave.
What was your life like when you were a child and how did it lead you to design?
I grew up in a great small town with a population of 500—full of character and characters. Many family friends had interesting old homes and I always wanted to explore. My parents were very good at making sure that I knew a larger world existed beyond our town limits—with even more interesting places and things to see. My mother could see the beauty in any object and was great at seeing potential and reuse. A friend once accused her of being able to hang “anything” on the wall.
Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
Virginia Tech offers a five-year architecture degree, which allows you to be a practicing architect after your intern experience and sitting for the exam. Architecture school offers an amazingly broad education as is the field of architecture. My wife Anne, also an architect, whom I met at Virginia Tech, and I were both encouraged by Professor Gene Egger to pursue our mutual interest in graphic art and silk screening. With this, she and I both have had graphics accepted by, produced and marketed by the Museum of Modern Art as part of its annual holiday card collection.
After being licensed and practicing for a number of years, I did attend UVA for a second degree in architecture. The course “Introduction to Landscape Design” taught by Reuben Rainey was the best class ever. It opened my eyes to what landscape architecture was capable of achieving. Man against nature, man with nature, man over nature, man returns to nature.
What inspires you?
Is it trite to say nature? There is a certain rationality to how things work in nature and how things are put together. A trunk, and branch, a twig, a leaf. Of course there are natural anomalies and curiosities which make life interesting and fun.
How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?
A great view is a luxury that not all have, but when there is one, it is a no-brainer. It expands every room and every space feels larger if connected to it. If there is no view or a view to shield, then it is still the same question (what have I been given as a piece of this particular puzzle?) and how to best solve it.
What’s in the studio at the moment?
A cool “teaching” barn, several overhauls of existing homes that have the right site, but not the right place for humans and a lovely small addition to a quaint chapel.
How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?
There is always room for more, but I think there are interesting projects for a very varied group of practitioners. From modest projects to not so, from single family to institutional and commercial work. There is really the opportunity to shop local. This area has a lot of talent amongst the trees.