Strong influence: VMDO architect David Oakland is making his mark

Hereford Residential College, designed by VMDO in collaboration with Tod Williams + Billie Tsien, served as Oakland’s homebase with wife Nancy Takahasi (UVA, Landscape Arch.) during her service as Principal of the College from 2007 to 2013. Photo: Courtesy VMDO Architects Hereford Residential College, designed by VMDO in collaboration with Tod Williams + Billie Tsien, served as Oakland’s homebase with wife Nancy Takahasi (UVA, Landscape Arch.) during her service as Principal of the College from 2007 to 2013. Photo: Courtesy VMDO Architects

What does it mean to make a mark on the land? That was a question posed of VMDO principal David Oakland as a first-year UVA architecture student, and one that Oakland (and, he notes, many other architects) continues to answer as best he can. The question came from Robert Vickery, his teacher at the time and the founder of VMDO, where Oakland has worked since graduating from UVA in 1978. He’s spent much of his career focusing on college and university campuses.

“The time a college student spends on campus is perhaps the only time in their lives that they live in a community designed to encourage and inspire them,” Oakland said. “Our work focuses on how these places can be strengthened, preserved and maintain their relevance and usefulness as needs and people change.”—Caite White

David Oakland. Photo: Amanda Maglione
David Oakland. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Why architecture?

That is a question an architect will spend a career trying to answer. We know that buildings must satisfy the increasingly challenging functional and practical needs of people. But who are those people? Our client who pays for our work? The people who use the building and perhaps live there? What about the people who walk by each day? Architecture communicates with people and it influences how they live, work and see themselves. It is an art, but it is a public art. As architects we have an obligation to make the lives of the people who come in contact with our work better in big and small ways. We make them more comfortable, work more productively and live within the boundaries of a sustainable future.

I came to it more or less by accident. After my first year at UVA in liberal arts I transferred to the A-School. I was excited about the creative community of the studio experience. While it was out of my previous experience and comfort zone, I have never looked back.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I came to Charlottesville in the Fall of 1971 as a first-year at the University and have lived here since then. I have been very fortunate to be able to practice outside Charlottesville and participate significantly in many places, but I have never come across a place I would have preferred to live and raise my children.

What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?

I grew up, mostly, in the suburbs of Atlanta. I think it may have been the lack of a meaningful sense of place that has had me searching for it ever since. In Charlottesville, I had immediate access to forests, mountains and lakes. This access is something many of us appreciate in living here but seems out of reach for too many.

The Virginia Military Institute. Photo: Virginia Hamrick
The Virginia Military Institute. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

I remember lessons learned from most of my teachers. Two stand out, Carlo Pelliccia and Bob Vickery. They came from very different places and taught different things. Carlo was Italian with what to me were urbane European and Italian values. He introduced me to many beautiful things: architectural form, witty conversation and good food and wine. Bob has been my teacher, mentor, partner and friend for most of my life. Not incidentally, he founded VMDO, where I have worked since I left UVA in 1978. Bob taught me that architecture is fundamentally about people and how they should live together in community. Architectural theory and practice can get abstract quickly. Bob has always been quick to remind us that we err when we diverge from making buildings and communities better places for people to enjoy and live in.

Much of David Oakland's career has been focused on buildings to support student life. Among them, the Averett University Student Center. Photo: Virginia Hamrick
Much of David Oakland’s career has been focused on buildings to support student life. Among them, the Averett University Student Center. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

On process: How does it begin?

VMDO has focused on educational buildings since it was founded. For many years, I have focused exclusively on college and university campuses. For me, these schools are diverse; all are unique. We start in two places. First, we work to understand that uniqueness. How is the campus structured and how should our building be integrated? Second, what should the building be? What are the problems it is meant to solve?

Among Oakland's past projects is the Liberty University library. Photo: Alan Karchmer
Among Oakland’s past projects is the Liberty University library. Photo: Alan Karchmer

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the places people before us have created. I understand how difficult and challenging it is to make a beautiful or satisfying place, and I want to know how it was done. I find inspiration in everyday things: the way the sun shines on the mountains in a moment or how a person might answer a daily challenge. In my work, I’m inspired by ideas. I find most of my ideas come from thinking about problems in a new way. Architectural design is iterative. Our first ideas are never the best. “Architecture is a patient search.”

Oakland designed UVA's Wilsdorf Hall. Photo: Virginia Hamrick
Oakland designed UVA’s Wilsdorf Hall. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

What’s in the studio at the moment?

We have for the past several years been focused on a series of buildings to support student life. Six years ago we planned the reconstruction of the Core of Clemson University’s campus. Like many schools, development has been directed almost concentrically around the periphery. Our work was to redevelop the core to become the meaningful heart of campus. We have planned a replacement student union, dining hall, academic space and student housing. We are now (finally) completing design work on the first phase of the work which will include the dining and honors college. At Georgia Tech we are finishing work on the renovation of one of the oldest residence halls on campus. It will include a wide range of study and learning spaces in an addition that opens to a rejuvenated courtyard. Closer to home we are doing similar work in planning the renovation of Gooch/Dillard Residence Area at UVA. We have been working at Liberty University in Lynchburg on a mammoth redevelopment and master plan involving much of the campus. We have completed a new library and are currently working on a new school of music, science building and student center. In North Georgia we have almost finished an interesting project that combines the student center and library. In much of our work, the boundaries between learning and living are becoming blurred. We are working to understand how learning can be facilitated and encouraged inside and outside the classroom everywhere, but currently at George Mason and at the McIntire School here at UVA.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?

In 1976, VMDO was founded on the idea that an inventive and thoughtful architecture could thrive here. I have practiced here for over 35 years and have seen us change from a small college community attached to a dying agricultural base to a vibrant, diverse university small city. The design community has advanced even faster. The quality of life that attracted me and encouraged me to stay has had the same effect on countless others. While much of it is based on our connections to UVA and its School of Architecture, the quality of life here has brought architects and landscape architects from everywhere. I think our Central Virginia perspective is especially relevant to current design thinking about how our environment can point us toward a more healthy and livable place for ourselves and the generations that will come after.

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