For 10 years now, architect Bob Gurney, AIA, has been asking clients to clear away the encrustation of the past. When they envision their homes, he wants them to see well, nothing in particular. Just a dwelling that will be a spontaneous response to the site and the way they really live.
Gurney is thoroughly at home in the modern world. He's never liked duplicating details 100 years old or 50, for that matter. His buildings are not about the coolness of mid-century Modernism, with its mute materials and sparse details. They're about color, light, texture, and form. His work is edgy and abstract in composition, and as sumptuous in materials and details as it is clean of line.
It hasn't been easy honing that aesthetic in Washington, D.C., a city that worships the past. Nevertheless, as Gurney ends his first decade of practice, his talent is drawing notice. He's been rewarded with increasingly substantial commissions. And this year one of his projects won an AIA national honor award for excellence in design one of 30, only four of which were residential.
Gurney's market primarily the nation s capital and its prosperous suburbs consists of clients who have typically demanded stylistic elements, such as a Palladian window or some twist on Postmodernism, that will help sell the house down the road. That's changing lately. It doesn't seem like there's a style everyone is a slave to right now, Gurney says, so there's a lot more openness to everything you do. It frees you up in terms of client expectations.
Case in point: the Fitch/O'Rourke residence completed last year, a kinetic design that received widespread publicity, the national AIA award, and a design award in this magazine, too. All Gurney designs have a certain look bold geometric shapes, a precise sense of organization, and artful, meticulous details. But this is probably his best work to date. In it, the architect transformed a row-house wreck with a complex puzzle of diagonal lines and curves that trace back to a theoretical center point 28 feet east of the house. The second floor pares away along those lines to pull light into the center of the house. Throughout, intersecting planes of concrete, rusted steel, polished mahogany, corrugated metal, and shimmering copper wire cloth play up the house's concept as a piece of Modern sculpture.
Gurney s architecture has a very strong sense of order, observes noted D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA. In the Fitch/O'Rourke house, he used so many materials in one room. But because his order was so strong it carried the day. The project was a defining moment. After a decade designing renovations and additions that struggled to be Modern while respecting the historical context, he was finally given a chance to cut loose.
The positive publicity it garnered helped Gurney land larger-scale commissions, including a 12,000-square-foot house in Great Falls, Va., and a 4,000-square-foot residence in the mountains of Prince William County, Va., both currently under way. Gurney s success might also be measured out in design awards 36 at last count. A high percentage of design competitions Gurney enters, he wins a factor that has given his work confidence.
"When he loses, you watch him shift," Jacobsen says. "The only people who can really look at architecture are your peers. When they give you an award, it means something. The recognition has also helped attract ambitious clients who actually want what he does clean, Modern design. They're more trusting now, and more open to the ideas he proposes, than they were five years ago." In turn, his work has matured, from axially organized kitchens and room additions to more sculpturally complex custom homes. "I'm subscribing more to the philosophy now that things can be balanced and organized without being symmetrical," he says. "The work is a little looser."