Why did you choose to teach at the University of Virginia?
This is the third time I’ve been here. I first came to UVA as a student, then I taught here for two years in the 70s, and then finally I returned in 1988 when I was asked to chair the department of architecture. This place is dear and important to me because the UVa School of Architecture remains one of the top schools in the nation that still focuses on architectural design. This may sound strange, but so many schools seem to have abdicated away from the teaching of design. As design is the core of our discipline, I enjoy being here.
How did you become interested in architecture?
When I was a teenager I came across a mill near my hometown and I was startled that the mill made a stronger landscape than it had inherited because the mill had a dam that formed a mill pond which gave a normal creek both stillness and velocity. The dam continued into the abutment and a turbine and finally to the elegant superstructure above and I realized that the building and its need for water power had paid an elegant price for use of the land. I understood at that moment that architecture could make a place stronger and more beautiful rather than ruining it like so much architecture does.
What do you like best about Charlottesville?
Charlottesville is a wonderful town but its real splendor is its setting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. I find it extremely satisfying as a juncture between a tight urban place and its natural setting.
What is the most exciting or interesting project you've worked on?
My favorite project is an unbuilt project. It began as a house for Habitat for Humanity in a competition offered by SECCA in which we decided not to do a house but to do a community because we didn’t think a single house really got at the problem. We created a tight urban design in which houses of all sizes sat along a shared street. The lawns in the back of the houses were planted with tomatoes and corn and crops to help sustain the people, and the houses were modular with a kit of parts—a selection of walls and windows that could be chosen by the owner, not the architect. That project was the most interesting to me because we made it a statement of principles as well as a design.
What have you learned that surprised you (either at the A-school or afterwards)?
For years my only contact with design students was in a studio setting. A few years ago I began having long conversations with each student at the beginning of the semester about themselves and their interests: where they come from; where they hope to go; what their loves are; what are their avocations or interests beyond studio. And what I continue to find is that all of these students have so many layers and interests and abilities—they’re spending time volunteering, they’re musicians, they’re aspiring writers, they’re world famous Frisbee players, none of which I had any idea about before I started doing this. Learning about these students’ outside interests has helped me enormously.
What is your next project?
We have completed drawings for and are preparing to build a guest house for a Cistercian monastery, Mepkin Abbey and Meditation Chapel on the Cooper River in South Carolina.