I recall one particular home I designed, which had a soaring two story great room, with an adjacent and rather large gourmet kitchen. One could access the upstairs bedrooms via the inside stair, or the rear wrought iron stair in the Terra-cotta clad solarium at the rear. Looking back (I still have the drawings), the ideas are still relevant today, but were very amateurish and unrefined, and consited mainly of a hard-lined floor plan done with a pencil and ruler on lined notebook paper during another boring class. Today, the ideas come too fast to take that time - plans are only tools used to construct. IDEAS are what generate Design. Details are always part of the design process, but "fleshing them out" comes much later.
My earliest years were spent in Alexandria and Arlington, with many trips into the Nation's Capital. The Lincoln Memorial was likely my most memorable "architectural experience", but then so were the historic places, such as Gunston Hall , that we would visit. I was especially fond of our weekend drives up and down Route 1 from Arlington to Fort Belvoir. The homes were set in an idyllic setting for me, and I would strain my neck to catch but a glimpse of the estate homes on the River.
I was also fortunate to play in the school symphony, which afforded me many tours of private homes, elaborate music halls, and the occasional state house - I particularly like inside of the Pennsylvania Governor's Mansions in Harrisburg, though the exterior is rather "flat". These excursions only furthered my burning desire to design beautiful places. My secret passion was for Old-World and Classical architecture, though I didn’t know those terms then.
Unfortunately, I had no teacher, no guide, no mentor to help explain at what I was studying. I was, in fact, blind though I could see.
After three and a half years of rigorous modernist and contemporary teaching, and having lost all respect of my peers for actually asking questions during the 8 AM architectural history classes when they wanted to sleep, I grew discouraged and took time off. I thought I would find the architecture I wanted to learn, emulate and design by working for a firm. This was only part true. I did not learn much more about design in the firms where I worked, than from School, though I did learn much about projects. The owners of one firm simply handed us a republication of an old book on proportion and said, “Learn this.” Funny thing is that I don’t think the owners could have explained “it” if pressed. Yet, I was still determined.
But what was this “it” that I was looking for? I mean, a building is just a bunch of walls, doors and windows, with some fancy moldings, right? I learned about architectural proportion in college, right?
After years of haphazard and frustrating attempts to learn and understand the fundamentals of great architecture in the Western World, as well as many years seeking out what seemed to be an ephemeral set of secrets held only by a few elite architects, I stumbled upon the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York City. I had found the illustrious “fountain of youth” of Architecture. At that time, the Institute was offering a 10 day intensive, to which I applied but could not attend, again because of financial obligations to my family. I deferred to the following year, but with circumstances not much better, I picked up the phone and said to take me off the list. To my surprise, and for which I am forever indebted, I was told, “You’re on the list. Just find a way to get here and we’ll take care of the rest.” I was dumbfounded, elated and scared all at once.
I managed to find a round trip bus ticket to New York City for $10, and a free couch to sleep on for the 10 days! I only needed to pay for food and art supplies, which was no small feat in New York City – That set me back around $500, mostly in art supplies. I ate at cheap food trucks and often saved half a meal for later.
At the first day of class, we were asked why we were here. I choked up trying to explain that I had wanted to study classical architecture for years, but could not find mentors, other than books. I was so overjoyed that I had found a group of peers that valued design like myself, and a group of teachers who were willing to teach it openly.
Since that experience, I have been liberated by a better understanding of the past, and today even my contemporary designs are better proportioned and detailed, merging thousands of years worth of understanding passed to me through teach with modern materials and current tastes.
Of course one never stops learning. Today, I can be proud that I have the tools and knowledge of where to look, and at what I am looking, to understand and design. I have been fortunate to work with many award winning firms, on some amazing projects, such as a Conservation Plan for the Historic Decatur House on Lafayette Square; a $10M historic estate renovation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; and a wonderful new home in the new community of Windsor, in Vero Beach, Florida - not to mention numerous other homes and commercial spaces up an down the East Coast.
I was told by one professor that Architects & Designers rarely do very great work before the age of 50. Yeah! I have plenty of time to get to "Great". I am more interested in solving problems than adhering to a specific style, but I do have a penchant for the traditional and classics. The design of a home, to a large extent, should be contextual, and in Virginia, fortunately, that often means traditional design, using classical guidelines.
Now to find the clients who value great design, as opposed to simply four walls and a roof. This may pose a bit of a problem, as my family and I have relocated to the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and are rarely invited anymore to the parties where one is likely to meet the clients necessary to develop a great portfolio. However, I am always game for travel, and our location affords us to be quite competitive when it comes to design fess, which most everyone is looking for these days.
I long for the day when I can repeat the words of Palladio, one of the Great Fathers of Architecture, saying:
“I am called a fortunate man,
for I have found people of rank, noble and generous in mind,
and of excellent judgment,
who vouchsafe their belief in my ideas.”