architecture / people

finding Soul in the Place

For the past twenty years, Architects Charles Swartz and Elizabeth Reader have honed their fine craft in architecture and design from a downtown studio in Winchester, Virginia at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. The vernacular architecture of the region has had a direct influence on their work, but there’s a lot more to it than that as they constantly search for the “soul of the place” in what they do. Architecture is best when a sense of the unexpected is imbued within it. 

Interview with Winchester based Reader & Swartz Architects | by Josh McCullar

Q. What strikes me about your practice is, that in a very traditional town, you have been able to create a portfolio of modern design. Your work is decidedly vernacular in form. And, in a region of farms, orchards, stone walls, gable roofs, and rolling hills it seems to be of that place. What gave you the courage to open a design focused firm in Winchester and how does the rural context and landscape of that place influence your work?

While Beth grew up all over the United States, I grew up in Winchester, and have lived here nearly my entire life. At this point, I guess, the geography and buildings are “in our bones,” just a part of our design language and a way of looking at things. To keep from being totally insular, we do make a point of traveling. Opening an office {left} in a small town wasn’t really by grand design. The construction recession of 1990 severely limited our options, so we just started doing the best we could do, where we were.

Q. What was the most memorable project experience you’ve had since starting the firm?

All projects are an experience that we are actively involved in, and we never quite know exactly what will happen or precisely how they will turn out. At this point, very little is truly shocking. Projects start abruptly, disappear, sometimes come back, and crazy things happen during construction. The thing that gives us the most charge is working with each other, our clients, and the builders and craftsmen to create something that matters. All else is just (sometimes humorous) war stories.

Q. In that region, do you find that clients come with preconceptions of style, or do they come to your firm because they want something more inspired? How do you see the role of an architect in educating clients about design to challenge preconceptions? Has this been difficult?

Our clients come to us with a wide range of preconceptions and expectations, from very traditional to modern to “let’s see what happens”. We are very open to working on all kinds of projects. We think it is more interesting to look at each project on its own terms, the client’s thoughts, needs, and dreams, the site, and the soul of the place. The method of working that resonates best with our clients is to ask a lot of questions, listen, show them our ideas and raw sketches, and talk about what we are thinking and why. We do all of our projects using iterations, baby steps all along the way. By the time we have finished the drawings, our clients understand what matters, fight for the ideas, and feel like we designed the building together. This approach may be slower, but we ultimately think we get projects that matter to us, and our clients.

Q. How does the design process begin for you in the initial conceptual study period of a project?

The first drawings we show our clients are usually diagrams, which are not particularly beautiful or emotive. We look at a project from many different ways, and show our clients things we think are good, as well as the thoughts we had that didn’t work. The important thing about that process is the big ideas behind these approaches. We come to agreements on ideas with our clients, before we show them anything they could show their friends.

Q.What notable architect’s work do you admire?

I think as an office we almost unanimously love the work of Terunobu Fujimori and Sam Mockbee.

Q. There is a sense of humility and deftness to your work in the way materials and details are articulated. Like the region’s traditions, stone is used as a grounding element for permanence, wood is used to frame and impart warmth, and glass is used for light and view. Talk about how time honored materials can be used in modern design. Is there a central philosophy in the way you feel materials should be used?

In general, our site plans, plans, and sections are not strictly traditional or classic modern. We always attempt to make spaces and places with whatever things we are given. We love open plans, inside outside connections, ambiguity, and we also love a great box with a fireplace. Our material palette follows a similar point of view. We use traditional materials because their track record is well documented, builders know how to work with them, and clients love them. They also connect back to our collective sense of history and memory. We also love new materials and new ways to think about old materials. The trick is to make something that has a clear sense of itself; true, honest, but also interesting and sometimes unexpected.

Images: Reader & Swartz Architects

Special thanks to Joel Richardson, Associate AIA for coordinating this interview



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