Fred Wolf and Dave Ackerman are easily two of the best practicing architects in Charlottesville today. In just over a decade since founding their design firm, they have honed a well crafted and highly thoughtful body of work well tuned to their client’s needs and to the art of architecture in Virginia. Almost 13 years ago, I entered graduate school at UVA and served as a teaching assistant to Fred Wolf’s studio. I remember with fondness the lessons he taught, the attention to detail, and rigor expected in the student’s work. I’ve followed Wolf Ackerman’s work regularly since their firm began and I can think of no better way to start 2013 than to showcase their work here on vaMODERN.
Interview with Architects, Fred Wolf and Dave Ackerman | by Josh McCullar
Q. There is a great treatise on architecture by Gaston Bachelard called Poetics of Space, and in it he wrote “One must always maintain one’s connection to the past and yet ceaselessly pull away from it.” In Virginia, people say we are often trapped by our history. If one is to be a modernist in this place, I think Bachelard is right. What do you make of it?
FW. Great book. It was required reading at UVA as undergrads embarked on their education. The book talks a lot about polarity of spaces and ideas and the balance created by juxtaposing opposites in contrast to one another: old and new, light and dark, up and down, in and out, heart and mind… and I think what is important about those extremes is the in-between spaces they suggest. There are many layers to each side. The past somehow seems like a static idea even though the past was dynamic. For us, studying and appreciating our connection to building traditions and vernacular contexts helps inform how we can borrow old ideas or materials and reinterpret or reinvent them to make a modern composition or assemblies that still relates to its predecessor. In our work, we look for opportunities to create a dialogue between new and old fragments and spaces – extending the larger conversation in whatever small way we can.
DA. Couldn’t agree more. Architecture is a societal art, a complete break with the past is implausible. Architecture should be of the time and the place. There is a way to acknowledge the past without being slavish to it. There is nothing intrinsically troubling about red brick and white columns, unless they are deployed in a retardataire and historicist manner.
Q. Across Virginia there are salient remnants of our agrarian past: Tobacco Barns, Corn Cribs, Bank Barns, Clapboard farm houses, Silos, and fields delineated by creeks, cedar hedge rows, or wooden fences. These are the residual fragments of what was once a compartmentalized landscape that ordered the land here marked by taut prismatic forms. You have created a modernist language in the Virginia Piedmont, a place of rich history, and one that extends, I think, a lineage of making crisp forms within a well ordered site. Is precedent research a factor in your work? What are you drawn to?
FW. Precedents and historical context are very important to us. We don’t look back wistfully; we look back to help us look forward. We understand work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Built and un-built work contributes to a discourse about form, function and the relationship between those two things within their setting or site. I appreciate simple, iconic and timeless forms – things that can adapt or serve multiple purposes and avoid being easily labelled. At the same time, I love parts and fragments that revel how things move or work. Mostly, anything that tells its own story and isn’t generalized or clad in some sort of ornamental icing.
DA. We do talk quite a bit about the indigenous agrarian vernacular. Who doesn’t love a good barn? We’re both from the midwest, agrarian architecture in that region (save the topography) is not all that different. I’m not sure our work would look that different if we were practicing in Ohio or western New York. We don’t use a lot of red brick.
FW. I grew up in Buffalo – so it was cold. Neither of my parents were particularly artistic, but I loved to sketch, paint and construct things. I would invent lots of art projects. Occasionally, I would draw random front elevations for houses I imagined designing. I honestly can’t recall ever wanting to be anything other than an architect since I was 5 years old. In high school, I attended a summer program to study architecture at Cornell. It was intense work but I loved it and that was it, I was hooked.
DA. I grew up in a ranch house in suburban northeast Ohio. Without a second floor or garret to inhabit, I think Bachelard would say that I was culturally disadvantaged for architecture. I was interested in art and science and math. In seventh grade, an architectural project in art class turned my head. Of course, Mike Brady was an early influence.
Q. Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a stand-out teacher that had a lasting impact on you as a designer?
FW. I attended UVA for undergraduate and grad school. Studio was a new and all-consuming process. It fit my nature too. I am a little obsessive and prone to trying to be a perfectionist – after I am done procrastinating. I tended to work until the last minute and always seemed to be in ‘crisis mode’ at the last minute. But I loved the culture of studio. It was a 24/7 operation. And because there were few computers, classmates couldn’t work remotely. So everyone had to be in there together which led to a very competitive but supportive environment. It’s hard to point to just one professor – there are many strong influences I remember fondly, each different, that shaped me. Interestingly, for me its the ones who may be viewed as the most polar opposites that influenced me most – laying the foundation for how I like to think about design.
DA. As an undergraduate at Princeton I was exposed to a lot of great critics and guest lecturers. My first year of studio, when I felt slightly out of my element, Robert Maxwell was a very positive and encouraging influence. My thesis advisor was Alan Chimacoff, At that time at Princeton, the line between architectural design and literary criticism was pretty thin, Alan was pragmatic and plainspoken, it was a good fit. In grad school at UVA, I worked for a summer with Jim Tuley. He was an avuncular unapologetic modernist from whom I learned the importance and sanctity of the diagram. I had a fantastic studio in Venice with Ed Ford that really developed my interest in materials, systems, and detailing.
Q. On Process: How does design begin for you?
FW. For me, design starts through diagramming ideas or thoughts. Those may or may not be about a building or its program or the site – sometimes its about how you could formally express a concept that may then drive a way of thinking about the building’s meaning. Early diagrams ‘sponsor’ other more practical drawings or concepts.
I start from a place that is compositional and expressive rather than thinking about organization or order first. I think design is about deciding what ideas or elements you want to focus on and then, you figure out how to achieve that within the parameters of a project. I love the Michael Graves article on drawing and I think it perfectly summarizes the necessity of using sketches and drawing notation as a method of ‘thinking’ and analyzing ideas.
DA. “The plan is the generator”. Generally, I begin with plan diagrams as a means to establishing program relationships. Once the pieces have coalesced, massing diagrams or sections are usually next. These steps are not totally independent – I’m thinking in section while I’m drawing in plan. Its a non-linear process. The introduction of a meter, usually structure, stars to bring an order to it.
Q. Materials and Details: Your use of color or texture is obviously tied to the honest expression of a material. How do you decide whether to use masonry, wood, metal or glass in a particular location or application?
FW. Decisions about materials (and how they are assembled, connected or revealed) are most often based on trying to reinforce the primary design intentions of the project and provide organizational clarity. They strengthen the story. Going back to your first question, I think about buildings and landscapes in terms of contrast and juxtaposition creating balance – warm and cold, soft and hard, heavy and light, etc. Certain materials suit themselves better than others to these ideas, and materials have inherent properties that on a more subtle scale also reinforce these ideas through grain or texture or sound. And then sometimes, its just simply about what the project can afford.
DA. Expressing the essence of a material is important to us, “honest” and “truthful” are inherent in that. There is very little irony in our work. The form or function of a particular element is the starting point and that gets nuanced by attributes like heavy or light, smooth or textured, modular or monolithic, etc.
Q. Lou Kahn spoke of two kinds of spaces in architecture: the room and the garden. The idea of reciprocity between form and the landscape is strong in your work. Historically, in modern architecture, space was to be free flowing, wall-less, and unbound. You are a modernist in Virginia who is very good at making rooms. They are defined rooms that organize a spatial sequence. First, how does the site or “place” come to bear on your work, and then how does your definition of the “room” relate to the site?
FW. Reciprocity is a key word in design and clearly its comes up over and over here. But reciprocity implies balance between two concerns. There are three things we come back to: Precedent, Program and Site. Precedent and program give you form and function. Site is the variable that changes with each new instance. Our education at UVA would not allow you to think about form / function without the site or vice versa. Inside and out are interdependent of one another. In many ways, architecture is largely about articulating and manipulating that one boundary. My hope on any project is that our work can capture or reinforce what is most essential and unique about a particular place, site or context – whether we are making a building, a landscape or a small, discreet intervention in either.
DA. We try to integrate built forms into the landscape. Sometimes this requires a little landscape manipulation, but we aren’t imposing our will on the landscape. One of the things that I like about designing additions and renovations is that there is already a mark on the page, so to speak. The mark needs to be acknowledged and responded to. The response can either strengthen and enhance or it can question and mitigate. I think that our approach to an intervention in the landscape is similar. “Plan Libre vs. Raumplan”: I think we adopt a “both, and” approach. Programs usually dictate a number of smaller cellular spaces in support of larger more honorific spaces. The functional and compositional disposition of smaller introspective spaces and larger outward looking spaces, the play between heavy and light, it is something I really enjoy about Frank Lloyd Wright plans.
Q. What’s in the studio now?
We are working on several projects these days that include an Inn with historic tax credits, new multi-family, 36-unit apartment building, a 35,000sf office building addition to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research center, a local restaurant / bar renovation design, a progressive church for an adaptive reuse of an old textile warehouse and a modest residence / studio for a couple retiring to Virginia.visit wolfackerman.com to learn more
images by Wolf Ackerman, Andrea Hubbell Photography, and Scott Smith as noted