FACETIME- Vickery dock: architect finds teapot in a tempest

Robert Vickery

As Charlottesville's downtown grows ever more expensive, one of the more informed minds is keeping an eye on the situation from the house he built just a stone's throw from the Downtown Mall. Former UVA Architecture professor Robert Vickery has presided over the town's development in one way or another since he came to town to teach the University's aspiring Frank Lloyd Wrights in 1970. He was best known for a course called "Concepts in Architecture" where he estimates he taught nearly 3,000 students before his 1997 retirement.

"What he was best at was explaining the core meaning and vision behind architecture," says former student Rob Paul. "He cut to the core values of what it means to be an architect and make a mark upon the land."

Many of Vickery's local projects have involved schools, including Red Hill, Clark, Venable, and Scottsville Elementary. The last of these was recently honored with a design award for buildings that have served their original purpose for 25 years, and Vickery, 74, wishes that some of the folks shepherding Charlottesville into the future had similar vision.

"Architecture is supposed to serve human needs," he says. "That's why I'm not so big on some of the flamboyant examples."

The Charlottesville Pavilion is "strange," and the new downtown transit center is "at least three or four times larger than it needs to be," Vickery says. "What is this building going to give us that we need as far as citizens except a lot of toilets?

"We keep building more and more things on the Mall," he continues, "but we don't give any thought to who might live on the Mall, so the prices go up. The poor are being driven out of Charlottesville. In fact, the poor are being driven out of Albemarle County as well."

On a sought-after North Downtown street with its share of mansions, Vickery's own 2,340 square feet home stands as a soothing domestic example of function trumping everything else, as he feels it should on every project.

"The goal was to see how much we could squeeze into the smallest square footage possible," he says. The kitchen flows gently into the living room, and every room has multiple functions. Vickery even built a small elevator into the middle of the house at his wife's insistence– only to find that he needed it himself after a knee injury.

While designing the house in 1994, Vickery logged his thoughts in a journal, parts of which he shared with the rest of the world last year as part of his nomination for the Noland Medal, an award from the American Institute of Architects:

"For me the incorrectness of the materialistic world we currently live in is beginning to sink in. Our houses are too big– something to ponder. Why? Acres of suburban houses with pastiches of giant Palladian windows facing south? This is simply wrong."

The same might be said for some behemoths slated for construction in these parts. After all, he did win the award.