muse architects, bethesda, md. Taking a visitor on a tour of his work one sunny afternoon at the end of summer, Stephen Muse, FAIA, steered his Audi through an Upper Northwest Washington, D.C., community, where several examples of his architecture stand like good neighbors, contributing their unmistakable elegance to the street. Fueled by the last real estate boom, renovation projects seem to pop up on every block in these well-to-do historic neighborhoods, ranging from sympathetic face-lifts and additions to contemporary updates that clearly demarcate old and new. Muse slowed in front of a modern house under construction. Perched on a site that slopes up from the street, a wall was being built out front. He commented matter-of-factly that the architect does good work and that he has no problem with the house, but that he would not build a wall that tall. In the continuing debate over whether new urban architecture should blend in stylistically or stand out, Muse comes down firmly on the side of deferring to the rhythm of the street. “Not all of the existing houses in a neighborhood are good, but there are things here that are very good, and I'm going to support that,” he says.

At 57, Muse has the low-key confidence that comes with a successful 24-year practice, a collection of more than 100 design awards, and the satisfaction of seeing his work published in magazines and books too numerous to mention. Clad in a gray suit and plain white shirt, throughout the afternoon Muse lived up to his name, reflecting on his practice, relating elements of his life story, and explaining his design values. He does think about design as a value rather than a theory, and for him it comes down to this simple idea: “Architecture must improve the bigger picture—the community,” he says. “The distinction between old and new will occur naturally, as a result of problem solving.”

That's not to say Muse's work literally copies its context. What it does do extremely well is respond to the environment—to the complexities of the landscape, the angle of the sun, and the scale and patterns of the street. He describes his interventions as corrective surgery. These old houses have flaws that detract from their many good qualities. By striving to discover what individual houses were meant to be—and designing new ones that look believable, whether they're in a neighborhood or all alone in the countryside—he has created an architecture that's both true to the place and unexpectedly disciplined.

site specific It may be easiest to explain who Stephen Muse is by looking at his past. There was no epiphany pointing him to architecture; it was simply something he always knew he wanted to do. A native of Washington, D.C., he studied architecture at the nearby University of Maryland, intending to practice after completing the five-year bachelor's program it offered at the time. But it wasn't until his final year that his professors began discussing context, and it struck a chord. “You go through school working with different critics who try to convince you that architecture is about certain issues,” he says. “You can make buildings that are about virtually any idea, and people can tell you that the work is good, but if it doesn't sink in as something of great importance to you, you keep looking.”

He found what he was looking for at Cornell University, where architectural historian Colin Rowe was teaching at the time. During those two years in the Master of Architecture in Urban Design program, Muse never made elevations—only plans that responded to the site's structure and the larger setting. He stayed on a third year to teach, but mostly to buy time with Rowe. “We talked about everything from furniture to city plans,” Muse recalls. “What was actually very good was that Rowe wasn't an architect, but rather a historian and a critic. If you study with architects like Gehry or Mies or Graves, who have a very strong personal hand in how they do their architecture, it's probably a bit seductive to, after you leave, just want to make buildings that look like that. In studying with Rowe, you couldn't do that, because he didn't make buildings. So when you went away, you had to figure out what the building would look like and how your work would be about this idea.”

Rowe's influence was immediate and lasting. “Trying to come up with the answer to that question is what has driven our work ever since,” Muse explains. After working for Washington, D.C.-based Hartman–Cox Architects for a few years, he opened his practice in 1983. Since then, the office has grown by one person a year until reaching the ideal size of 18 or so, and many of them have stayed on. Fifteen years after being hired as an intern, William Kirwan, AIA, LEED AP, was made a principal in 2003. That same year Kuk-Ja Kim, AIA, who also joined the firm in 1988, was promoted to senior associate.

As the teacher he is—Muse has been on the design faculty of the architecture schools at the University of Maryland, Cornell, and Harvard University—he counsels his staff to start with the site, because that is the only factor that doesn't change. Even the program, he notes, usually morphs as the conversations get more detailed and clients realize the possibilities. Project architects are taught to ask: What are the different ways of putting the building on the land that address the client requirements? If the house is on the street, how does it respond to the program while making a statement about how the entire street works?