From tinkerer to designer: Robert Nichols brings his past interests to the present

Among Robert Nichols' projects are the renovation of the downtown Mudhouse location. Photo: Jack Looney Among Robert Nichols’ projects are the renovation of the downtown Mudhouse location. Photo: Jack Looney

As a child, architect Robert Nichols was always fixing broken things and salvaging other people’s junk. And once he started creating new objects, he became even more hooked on the process. “I loved the thrill of establishing authorship through a deliberate effort—I had evolved from a tinkerer to a designer,” Nichols said. He’s translated that thrill into a 20-year career incorporating all the things he’s long had an interest in—technology, materials, art and graphic design among them—working alongside his wife, Cecilia Nichols, at their firm, Formwork, where he focuses on multi-residential and hospitality projects and manages the integration and coordination of technical systems.

“The pleasure of layering an attitude of beauty and craft over the utility of a purely functional idea has never left me,” he said.—Caite White

Robert Nichols. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Robert Nichols. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Why architecture?

Architecture is a broad field, with a historical trajectory as long as human history. Thus, in most cases, studying and practicing architecture is the work of a generalist. This saved me from a meandering career path in which I did not want to commit to anything in particular for fear of setting aside everything else.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

It’s the village quality of Charlottesville that makes it work for me. I had lived for two years in Central America before entering graduate school, and I think that was when I discovered how satisfying village life can be compared to living in a big metropolis. Charlottesville has many of the qualities of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, which always struck me as a great place to live and work.

Among Robert Nichols' projects are an oversize condo in the Belmont Lofts. Photo: Scott Smith
Among Robert Nichols’ projects are an oversize condo in the Belmont Lofts. Photo: Scott Smith

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

To this day, I believe the most beautiful object I have ever created was a 1969 bicycle I had modified to shoot bottle rockets from a carefully machined aperture in the steering column. The rockets were activated by discreet push-buttons reached from the ends of the tubular handle bars.

Nichols' projects included the renovation of the historic Jefferson Theater. Photo: Jack Looney
Nichols’ projects include the renovation of the historic Jefferson Theater. Photo: Jack Looney

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

I found architecture school design studio courses thrilling and somewhat terrifying. I work best when solving design problems within a fairly tight context. In most cases, at school you are starting with a blank slate. My professional life is so satisfying now in part because my partner is very good at tackling the amorphous blank slate problem. She creates the initial gestures that give shape and internal context to our work, but it is never easygoing, never automatic, getting these early design ideas built on a site. That’s where I come in. I contribute by creating the construction and technical solutions that keep the design principals intact. In that sense, she is a problem creator and I’m a problem solver.

Robin Dripps at the School of Architecture here at UVA taught me that the questions can persist unanswered across projects, and even across a career. Answers aren’t so important. That’s a good thing and a fundamental lesson for life.

The Silverchair offices are on Nichols' list of local projects. Photo: Will Kerner
The Silverchair offices are on Nichols’ list of local projects. Photo: Will Kerner

On process: how does it begin?

I begin by letting my mind wander, staying away from firm ideas. All existing assumptions need to be reviewed and tweaked or tossed out. I need to create the design “envelope” from scratch and at my own pace. That includes dreary things like making sure we’ve got a correct interpretation of regulatory constraints, zoning rules and such, but also more esoteric issues, like how tall is “tall”? Or, is that big mountain over there really the “big view”?

What inspires you?

Intellectual generosity, which is a necessary precursor to true collaboration and growth. That and gorgeous proportions.

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?

A lot of our work takes place within existing buildings, so history is a big component of site and context for us. We are modernists at heart, so our task often is figuring out an appropriate way to engage our new work with quality work of the past. It’s not easy to do. People sometimes grumble about the constraints posed by the Board of Architectural Review here in Charlottesville, or any design review board for that matter, but those boards can shine light on a fair question: What is an appropriate contribution to existing fabric?

What’s in the studio at the moment?

We have quite a bit of excellent commercial work in the office, which is a nice complement to our private residential projects. Our commercial clients need to determine the right time to announce their projects, so I can’t really say anything about them. But we are very happy to be working on what will be substantial contributions to highly visible parts of Charlottesville. We have some projects in warmer climates as well.

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

There are many architects in Charlottesville whose work I really admire, but my general assessment is that things are bleak. Commercial work is depressing, but that is not a local problem, nor even a design problem as much as a larger collapse of urban thinking and values. Somehow the economics of commercial development needs to discover the advantages of better design. Industrial design evolved in this regard in the 1990s (Apple, etc.). Perhaps real estate development will start to reflect better architectural and urban design as an economic advantage.

Among Robert Nichols’ projects are an oversize condo in the Belmont Lofts (previous page and top), the renovations of the historic Jefferson Theater and downtown Mudhouse, as well as the Silverchair offices.

To read more from the February issue of Abode, click here.