Firm foundations: No unique style at VMDO

While Bicentennial patriotism was saturating America (and particularly Mr. Jefferson's town) in 1976, an avowed Modernist architect and three of his students were trying something different. The very first commission for the young architectural firm was the Rorer Residence, a vision in white-on-white Bauhaus style. It stayed a vision.

"Charlottesville was a sleepier place," says designer David Oakland. "It would have been a cutting edge building in Ednam Forest, but, being a student," recalls Oakland, "I didn't even know what Ednam Forest was."

But folks in Ednam probably know his firm's work. Since that initial disappointment, VMDO has avoided taking commissions from developers and other speculators, sticking largely with schools and colleges. That strategy has enabled VMDO to get things done– lots of things– to the point that the firm has built nearly a billion dollars worth of buildings, including new student centers at W&L and UVA-Wise.

Closer to home, VMDO designed the recent Scott Stadium renovations and the Jones Arena going up on Emmet Street.

Now, the guys are getting a pat on the back from the Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects: It named VMDO firm of the year.

That's a good thing, as not all the firm's work has met with favor. In his Guide to Virginia Architecture, UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson brands Oakland's opus– late-1980s Lewis & Clark Square office/condo– "awkward" and "post-modern." On the other hand, Wilson calls another VMDO project, Scottsville Elementary School, "an eye-catching civic presence."

Oakland and Bob Moje are now just two of eight principals, but because they provided the "O" and the "M" in a firm name that rolls off the tongue, they hold a special place in local lore. Moje in particular.

In late 2001, he stumbled into the Dave Matthews Band's Everyday video, in which he declines a hug from a chubby street person. Moje went unacknowledged until VH1 dissected the song on Pop Up Video and put a "jackass" bubble over the busy architect's head.

If forced to pick his own favorite project, Moje quickly names Manassas Park High School, which he credits with raising test scores and transforming a town.

"It's a symbol of what I've tried to do my whole career here: to make a difference in students' and teachers' lives," he says.

"There's definitely not a VMDO style," says Oakland, "and that's something that's been important to us since the beginning."

If it weren't for McDonough + Partners, an imported-from-NYC firm that's the darling of green-leaning corporate America, VMDO– with 35 employees– would be the biggest firm in town.

In keeping with their hometown vibe, VMDO architects eschew the all-black sartorial affectations of some big city types and the pretentious cape of a latter-day Frank Lloyd Wright.

"I don't think we have a lot of those," says VMDO marketing coordinator Jennifer Pullinger, "but we have a lot of sweater-vests."

David Oakland and Bob Moje