Two for one: Architect Kate Snider Tabony on merging arts and science

A concrete studio space with low ceilings and little natural light posed significant design challenges, but the project became a testing ground for material experiments, sustainable technologies, and spatial flexibility. Photo: Courtesy Kate Snider Tabony A concrete studio space with low ceilings and little natural light posed significant design challenges, but the project became a testing ground for material experiments, sustainable technologies, and spatial flexibility. Photo: Courtesy Kate Snider Tabony

“For me, architecture is like a state of active meditation—like yoga for the brain.” That’s Alloy Workshop architect Kate Snider Tabony on practicing her craft—one that’s taken her, since attending UVA’s architecture school, to California’s East Bay, Santa Fe, Princeton, New York City, and finally, Charlottesville, where she works with her brother, Zach Snider, at Alloy Workshop. She recently spoke with us about growing up in West Virginia, what brought her to Charlottesville, and how working at Alloy means designing a multi-use building for a local school and a playhouse for a fairy princess.—Caite White

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Photo: Melody Robbins

Why architecture?

I love the process of design. I love finding the best solution within a complicated labyrinth of constraints. When I was a junior in high school, my favorite subjects were art and physics. Although I had no real clue at that point, I thought that studying architecture might combine what I liked from both of those disciplines into one field of study. But it wasn’t until my first architecture class at UVA with Peter Waldman that I realized I’d made a good decision.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I came back to Virginia to work with Alloy. After my undergraduate work at UVA’s architecture school, I lived and worked in various cities across the country (California’s East Bay, Santa Fe, Princeton, New York City) practicing architecture. When my brother Zach Snider (one of the owners of Alloy) called me and asked if I would be interested in coming back to Charlottesville to work for Alloy, I was on a hiatus from architecture in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Frustrated and worn out from a year in New York City, I spent the summer recharging, and challenging myself in new ways as a raft guide and learning to whitewater kayak. During that summer and fall, I commuted from Charlottesville to Fayetteville so that I could work on the rivers on the weekend, and design on the weekdays. Charlottesville has kept me here because it has so much to offer: walkability, outdoor adventure, a tight-knit community with a sense of responsibility to the environment, and a thriving design scene.

Alloy installed stained, tongue and groove paneling on low HVAC soffits throughout the space, to define a sleeping nook in a basement guest room on Park Street. Photo: Courtesy Alloy Workshop
Alloy installed stained, tongue and groove paneling on low HVAC soffits throughout the space, to define a sleeping nook in a basement guest room on Park Street. Photo: Courtesy Alloy Workshop

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?

I spent most of my childhood summers with my brother Zach climbing trees, swinging on vines and searching for elusive Yetis on our property in West Virginia. I was lucky to have parents that encouraged exploration and allowed me to try different things while I was growing up. For example, my father is a big tinkerer; always fixing up an antique motorcycle or lofting plans for a sailboat hull. When I was about 12 years old, he helped Zach and me build our own wooden sea kayaks from mail order patterns. The patterns reminded me of the patterns my mom used to make my dresses when I was little, and are not dissimilar from the plans I draw every day. We spent many weekends in my dad’s woodshop cutting plywood, and using fiberglass and epoxy to glue them together. I remember finding it so surprising that I could make this curved 3D shape out of flat pieces of plywood. When we finally finished, Zach and I took them out on our yearly visit to the ocean, and the first wave I caught, I slammed my bow into the hull of Zach’s boat and knocked a huge hole in his kayak, which promptly sunk—the crazy thing was that he didn’t even get mad about it.

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

During my last year in college at UVA, I asked Sanda Iliescu to be my instructor for an independent study in painting. By maintaining a critical yet infallible positivity, she created a safe and dynamic space for discussion about architecture, design, and art. Sanda really helped me develop an understanding of architecture that was not limited by the boundaries of a building.

A niche wall of toned cedar and Carrara marble tie into the colors of a city bathroom. Photo: Courtesy Alloy Workshop
A niche wall of toned cedar and Carrara marble tie into the colors of a city bathroom. Photo: Courtesy Alloy Workshop

On process: How does it begin?

At Alloy, we first meet with a client and ask loads of questions about the project they envision: their needs, desires, budget, timeline, etc. Then the architecture team takes a trip to the site. We take a careful inventory of the existing structure or site and surrounding environment. We make drawings and take detailed measurements, and tons of photographs, and try to get a thorough understanding of the physical parameters of the project. Almost immediately after we visit the site, we begin sketching and imagining. We use precedent images and 3D digital modeling to help our clients imagine what their project can be. A unique aspect of Alloy’s process is that we can bring in our construction team very early during schematic design. This helps give our clients a realistic idea about how their desires align with construction schedules and costs.

What inspires you?

Most of what inspires me tends to be outside of the traditional definition of architecture. Like my 6-month-old son and his rapidly expanding perception of the world around him. Or the images of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—what’s become known as the umbrella revolution. There was something so incredible about the tenuous line that was created between the demonstrators and the police; the thick plastic riot shields and black Darth Vader helmets on one side juxtaposed against the protester’s technicolored umbrella armadillo on the other. The protesters had such a simple and brilliant architectural response to the physical threat posed by the police. The umbrella, a cheap and pedestrian object, suddenly became this incredible multifunctional device, as it was both a defensive mechanism (as it seemed effective at deflecting tear gas and pepper spray) and an iconic and beautiful symbol for a peaceful demonstration. I’m inspired by projects like this that grapple seriously with the heavy questions of our time, but do it with beauty, economy, and a sense of play.

What are you working on now?

One on the best aspects of working at Alloy is that we always have a variety of projects going on at once, so things stay interesting. At the moment, I’m super excited to be working on a new gymnasium, music, and art building for the Charlottesville Day School. At the other end of the spectrum, I am designing a small play structure for a family in town. Our client gave us an image of Bilbo Baggins’ house as a precedent and asked that the structure be an appropriate dwelling for a fairy princess. I’m also working on a modern apartment renovation within an historic building for adult humans.

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

In general, the site is one very important piece in a complex puzzle and it influences every project in different ways. Because we do a lot of renovation and addition work at Alloy, our sites are often a space carved out of an existing structure. We always try to strike a balance between the old and new when we design a new space within an old structure. Sometimes the situation allows us to make a radical intervention, and other times we try to blend our project in to the surrounding aesthetic more seamlessly.

Tabony’s own renovated Fifeville home features salvaged materials from floor to ceiling. Photo: Courtesy Kate Snider Tabony.
Tabony’s own renovated Fifeville home features salvaged materials from floor to ceiling. Photo: Courtesy Kate Snider Tabony.

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

Someone once said that architecture can only be as good as the clients who commission it. We are extremely lucky in this area to have a population of inspired individuals who are interested in improving the physical world around them and understand the value of good design. It is also very heartening to see that there is momentum gaining in our region for sustainable and environmentally conscious design and building. I love that there is real support and encouragement from the local community and government (with wonderful organizations like LEAP) to design, build, and retrofit in a way that is ecologically responsible.

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