architecture / modern living / people

Finding Purpose

James River Residence

in Abode Magazine, October 2014

Moving towards simplicity is often the hardest task in any creative act be it music or architecture. Is it a primordial human tendency for survival to want more things, and to make them bigger? Some of my favorite architecture strives toward the opposite in a search for clarity. It’s what I admire in the seminal work of Tadao Ando, and Luis Barragan, or locally in W G Clark’s houses. Their work was reductive, edited, and sought to get at the essence of what is real about a place or what is necessary in the service of shelter – after all the first task of architecture.

In his ancient text, Tao Te Ching the philosopher Lao Tzu wrote “Molding clay into a vessel we find utility in its hollowness…the being of things is profitable, but the non-being of things is serviceable.” Similarly, Claude Debussy recognized the power of absence when he said “Music is the space between the notes.” That universal language recorded on a page defines spaces that give voice to a beautiful sound, in the way walls and a roof protects the dweller while projecting her gaze beyond those physical constructs.

In 2000, I sat in W G Clark’s design studio at the University of Virginia between two other young designers who would eventually go on to be married. Today they also live and practice in Richmond after some time working in New York. As architecturally conservative as our city is, I think we’ve all found it to be an incredible place to work from, and it’s wonderfully ironic to me that three modernists from the same class at UVA ended up in Richmond. When I saw the weekend retreat my friends built on the James River in Scottsville, I was first struck by the blankness of the approaching façade. Three taut and immutable black boxes arranged like giant stones around a fire with wedge shaped voids between them, revealed light filled glimpses of a colorful woodland riverbank beyond. On the opposite side, large apertures were placed in each box to capture distinct views from within. Nothing here is wasteful or additive. To me, this is a kind of architectural subtraction with the expressed purpose of observing nature by contrasting with it.

Imagine the contrast of a geode stone – its dark rough shell being cut open to reveal polished reflection and lightness. It is truly magical inside, and so is this house with its white washed and bleached wood interior, modern furnishings, and sliding glass walls. It has an almost Scandinavian minimalism and all attention is focused to the landscape.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. This weekend house on the James River teaches us that seeking simplicity in the boundaries we make are necessary to see more clearly, the things which are outside of them. It is by the purposeful juxtaposition of disparate things, that the existential qualities of both can be better amplified and understood.

by Josh McCullar
To learn more about this project and the story behind it, pick up a print copy of the October ABODE Magazine available in the Charlottesville area for a full feature article by Erika Howsare.
Design by Architecture Firm, Richmond and Brooklyn {Design Team: Katie MacNelly, Danny MacNelly, Adam Ruffin, Serena Nelson}
Images by James Ewing / OTTO

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