modern mentor

Born on Staten Island, N.Y., Gurney, 43, is the son of a builder. His father constructed the house he grew up in. I was always exposed to building sites, Gurney says. I liked that. He also loved to draw, and it became clear to him early on that he would be an architect. Gurney received his bachelor's degree in architecture from Catholic University in 1980 and continued on to earn a master's two years later.

"I liked the way we learned about architecture there," he says. "It was a design-oriented school as opposed to technical or theoretical." About that time he met his future wife, Therese Baron Gurney, an interior designer. One of the couple s earliest collaborations was their own tiny Capitol Hill row house, a gut renovation they did on a shoestring. Upon completion in 1989, it promptly got published in the Washington Post Home section. And the interest it generated helped launch Gurney's practice the following year.

Every career needs a guiding light or two, someone to look to for inspiration, advice, and encouragement. Another fortuitous event for Gurney occurred in 1988, when Therese signed on as the staff interior designer for Hugh Jacobsen and his ultra-high-end clients. Jacobsen was one of the few local architects doing real Modern stuff, and he was getting a lot of exposure for it, Gurney remembers. "Once Therese began working for him, I got to know him very well. He was a good source of inspiration, and someone who could advise you on the practical level whether to rent office space or work from my basement as well as the architectural level."

Gurney says Therese also exerts a considerable influence on his work. "No one has been more helpful than she has," he says. "Therese works on my projects from the very informal level of bouncing ideas about materials around, to being hired as the interior designer on a good portion of them. She has a great eye."

Even Gurney's loosest sketches include furnishings, ensuring that the living space will accommodate, say, the fireplace, the television, and a seating group oriented toward the view. Cabinetry, wall surfaces, and stair rails are also integral to Gurney's designs. "I spend an incredible amount of time thinking about those materials and working out those details," he says. For example, his office created some 50 study models for the island in the Fitch/O'Rourke kitchen. "When you create architecture and interiors simultaneously, you have less of a need to have a strong impact with the furniture," he says. In that sense alone, Gurney's steady collaboration with Therese is a powerful one. Fabrics, carpets, and furniture are usually chosen to create a seamless composition. Therese realizes the furnishings are background to the architecture, he says. Whereas a lot of interiors people just want to leave their stamp and ignore what the architect has done, I'm not competing with her on who's going to have an impact with the project.

The more formalized Gurney operation consists of three other people occupying part of a town house in Old Town Alexandria, Va. It s a size he's happy with for now not so large he can t be actively involved in every project, but big enough to serve the firm s 25 or so active clients, with commissions ranging in scope from custom homes to kitchens to pieces of furniture. He still likes mixing up the small and large. "On large projects you can manipulate space and volume but quickly forget about the details," he says. "The smaller projects make you rely on details and materials and how things are put together. Working at both ends of the spectrum has made the projects better." And in an age when most architectural firms have a computer on every desk, Gurney still thinks best with a pencil. When I m doing a set of construction documents, he says, I m putting the building together both in my head and on paper at the same time."

passionate perfectionist

One of the buildings currently being put together is for Ben Schutz and Joanne Lindenberger, a married couple who are both psychologists. Like other Modernist architects, Gurney's focus in this house is on adapting tried-and-true building materials such as concrete, wood, and metal to contemporary concepts of form, color, and space.

The house, on a wooded hillside in Prince William County, takes advantage of river views to the east and a sloping ravine to the west. It s essentially two volumes one a rectangle, the other a trapezoid connected on the main floor by a wood and glass circulation space. An elliptical piece pops out of the bigger volume, which shelters the main living areas. It s rotated toward the best views and natural light. Inside, it defines an intimate seating area around the fireplace. The house has three different skins ground face block, corrugated steel, and oxidized corten steel panels, which will take on the color of the surrounding earth.

Gurney says clients who hire him want to be surprised. They like not knowing what to expect the building to look like. That was the case with these owners. Says Schutz, "I'm an incredible control freak. But I also understand there are areas where I have no talent. I m not so hamstrung by my need to be in control that I can t let go and have someone else have that degree of freedom. In a million years we couldn t have come up with what he did."

A 20-page questionnaire, however, does draw out the more mundane aspects of clients lives, such as how many people sit at the dining room table and how many pairs of shoes they have. Gurney also sometimes asks if there's a picture in a book or magazine that shows the character and spirit of a space they like, whether it s high-ceilinged and light-filled or low-ceilinged and intimate. But generally, Gurney says, "I like to go into these projects without a lot of preconceived notions of what the building will look like, and respond more to the context."

In choosing their architect, Lindenberger and Schutz delved into more than Gurney's design portfolio. They were also interested in his knowledge of construction. Gurney's complex, detailed drawings and assurances from past clients that he was a frequent presence on the site gave them the sense that this wasn't a guy who designed and then disappeared. "The references all talked about him in a multidimensional way," Schutz says. "He has a passionate perfectionism and cares deeply about getting a house built exactly as he designed it. "

What excites Gurney most about architecture is experimenting with such proven materials as copper, stainless-steel wire cloth, and rolling library hardware. "Finding new ways to use these things is always a lot of fun," he says. His formula for success also includes an obsession with craft putting materials together in such a way that they'll look just as good in 20 years.

"I'm not the kind of architect who will invent some new form," he says. Rather, Gurney gravitates to both the rational and the theatrical, carefully choreographing light and movement, and orienting rooms toward certain views. "I'd like to think my work is ordered, well thought-out, and rigorous," he says. "There's usually something that's guiding all the decisions, whether it s some intellectual idea I m trying to carry through or a certain geometry."

And when he succeeds, the finished effect clicks with clients in an emotional way. Remembering the dramatic moment when Gurney unveiled the three-dimensional model of their new home, Schutz offers perhaps the highest praise an architect can hope to hear. "Bob's very first response to our program was so astonishingly magical that we thought, Aren't we smart?" Schutz enthuses. "He took not only our dream but our way of living ideas we've had for 25 years and got them all in there, and in such a perfect way. We re in love with this house."