HOTSEAT- Painter of height: Architect Atwood cowboys up the town

Bill Atwood

Not many men choose from the violet end of the spectrum for their business attire, but architect Bill Atwood wears a purple polo shirt and probably doesn't think twice about it when he gets dressed. 

The biggest misperception people have about architects, he says, is that "They're all wearing their underwear too tight." Bill Atwood doesn't have that problem.

 Better known locally for a couple of high-profile projects in the works– Waterhouse condos over Club 216, an art deco complex on West Main (the former site of Under the Roof), and the completed Cream Street 10– Atwood also has buildings familiar to citizens who aren't necessarily downtowners: the Dairy Queen in Crozet, the Blimpie on U.S. 29 north, the Everyday Café on Pantops.

Florida-raised Atwood started in art and migrated to architecture. "Art's a journey," he says. "Some of the ugliest sh*t I've ever seen, I painted." Besides, he doesn't see art as something that needs to be sold– and he had to eat.

He came to Charlottesville in 1975 to work on Albemarle's first PUD– planned unit development– and like so many others, never left. "It was a lot like landing on another planet– the planet of tweed," he says.

At his first public hearing– a proposal to put a horse farm in Farmington– an argument ensued about the flight path of a horsefly. He was hooked.

Atwood debunks the "black box theory"– the notion that architects have a black box in the next room that's going to tell them what to build for a client. "We always listen to the client,"  he stresses. "All I do is anti-gravity machines. The clients– they have the answers."

Or as he once told a sixth grade class, "I'm the only person who will take someone's fantasy and make it a reality."

Thirty-three years after landing here, he could be reaching the most challenging part of his work life yet: his attempt to bring Waterhouse and the West Main building to life amid Charlottesville's stringent, yet shifting, zoning.

"I'm clearly irritated by former city councilors and mayors from Southern Environmental Law Center telling me buildings are too tall on West Main Street," Atwood grouses, clearly taking a shot at sunshine-lovin' former mayor Kay Slaughter. "We're not a city blessed with a growing number of neighborhoods. UVA is growing, the city can't annex– where are we going to put these people?"

He decries nine-story buildings that look like "the Pentagon on steroids, the wedding cake from hell," but that are by-right possibilities downtown, arguing that taller, thin towers atop the first six stories is much less intrusive and more European.

"I don't get it," he says. "Nine stories is the most uneconomical height to build because of fire safety, elevators.... Up to six stories or over 12 is most efficient. Nine stories– that's a dead zone."

As challenging as his upcoming projects will be, when asked about his most controversial project, Atwood doesn't chose Charlottesville. Instead, he names an African-American church he was working on 15 years ago "in the middle of nowhere" in Buckingham. "We got inspected by OSHA people and fined," he says. "I've done buildings in eight states, and OSHA appears in Buckingham? Someone didn't want that church built."

He doesn't hesitate to name his favorite project: a village in Hiroshima to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb. "That will always be by far the most important thing I've ever done," he declares.

During the five years he worked on the project, he never asked the Japanese how they picked "an average American schmuck" for the project. Later, he discovered it was a golf clubhouse that looks like a tobacco barn he'd designed in Williamsburg, a popular destination for Japanese tourists. 

He has advice for Americans doing business in Japan: you can't do business unless you sing karaoke. And you have to perfect your song.

"I'm an outstanding cowboy karaoke singer in Japan," Atwood insists. His song? "Born to Be Wild."

Age: 60

Why here? I came here to do the county's first PUD– Peacock Hill.

What's worst about living here? Dress code

Favorite hangout? Café Cubano

Most overrated virtue? Wearing underwear

People would be surprised to know: I paint everyday.

What would you change about yourself? I would change my wig.

Proudest accomplishment? I was named Practicing Architect of the Year by the Planning Commission.

People find most annoying about you: I'm loud.

Whom do you admire? Mike Davis, former Albemarle Planning Commissioner and smartest man I ever knew

Favorite book? Black Angel: The life of Arshile Gorky

Subject that causes you to rant? Psuedo urban experts

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Traveling to Japan to work in Hiroshima

Biggest 21st-century creep out?  Joining the U.S. Army. But not for me, for them.

What do you drive? Saab

In your car CD player right now: Bob Dylan

Next journey? Africa

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? OSHA fine for rural African American Church

Regret: That I didn't drink more Rocci in Istanbul

Favorite comfort food: Celery with peanut butter

Always in your refrigerator: Cold weather. I'm from Miami.

Must-see TV:  The Sopranos

Describe a perfect day. Painting all day

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm appearing with John Conover in a Hunter S. Thompson movie in which we discover the next sports/health drink...Wild Turkey!

Who'd play you in the movie? Donald Sutherland

Most embarrassing moment? Birth to this morning; it never ends.

Best advice you ever got? Listen.

Favorite bumper sticker? Cancer sucks.