I was pondering all the words, both profound and profane, I’ve heard from him in the past 28 years of our relationship. I wish I could relay these but his thought process, passion and humor are hard to describe; you just have to experience them.
The best print interview that ever captured his spirit appeared in Garden & Gun magazine in 2009. Aptly titled “The Poet of Place” , the interviewer was a sharp young fellow named Logan Ward. He seemed to properly grasp the man in front of him and was able to weave this understanding to paper. To fully comprehend our firm’s core beliefs, you need to hear from the guy who started it all. This particular diary is worth a read. So, in honor of Bobby’s birthday, the article is reprinted as follows:
At the age of five, when most children crayon a roof and chimney atop two walls and call it a house, Bobby started drawing floor plans. One of his first sketches was done in blue ink on the back of a Whitman’s Sampler box. “Momma said, ‘That’s very nice, but the dining room is nowhere near the kitchen,’” McAlpine recalls. “The funny thing is, I’ve never learned that. I still tend to make people walk.”
At age thirteen Bobby got his first commission to design a house from Miss Winnie Moody, a neighbor in Aliceville, Alabama. “She was one of the wealthiest people in town, but she was tight and not about to hire a real architect,” McAlpine remembers, so she paid him—exactly how much, he can’t remember, though it was less than $100—to draft a set of plans. “It was just a ranch house,” McAlpine modestly adds.
After living in six different burgs, McAlpine entered high school in Haleyville, a tornado-belt town in northern Alabama whose main industry was (and still is) mobile-home manufacturing. By chance, however, Haleyville claimed a single working architect among its ranks, and when Bobby was in ninth grade, that architect hired him as a draftsman. Up to that point, Bobby was completely self-taught, but not out of books. He climbed around job sites after hours, learning firsthand amid the blue chalk lines snapped on subfloors how to recognize floor joists and baseplates and stud walls. “It was a little more breaking and entering than anything academic.”
All that time, says McAlpine, his father, a backslapping man who spent his days in the rough-and-tumble world of the lumber business, “didn’t know what the hell to do with me or how to relate to me. I was the consummate nerd coming up. I didn’t do sports or band or clubs or anything.” Finally, father and son found common ground when the McAlpines decided to build a new house. “You draw it, son, and I’ll build it,” his father told him. Bobby was sixteen when the construction was complete. “We were close forever after that.”
Where It All Happens
Bobby McAlpine and I were seated at a round conference table at the offices of McAlpine Tankersley Architecture in Montgomery’s Cloverdale neighborhood. Around us, theater curtains spilled from steel rods, giving shape and texture to the cavernous second-floor loft. A dozen or more people leaned over drafting tables, penciling away on broad, crisp sheets of paper. Every home the firm designs is drawn by hand, down to the individual wood roofing shingles on the exquisite scale models. (“It communicates quality,” Greg Tankersley, McAlpine’s partner, later explained. “You can drive down the street and tell which buildings were designed on computer. They have no soul.”) Everything around me was so, well,architectural—and there was Bobby McAlpine showing me a set of crumpled 4-by-5-inch pages, peeled from an everyday notepad and inked to the margins with loosely rendered floor plans of a house for a Tulsa oil prospector. McAlpine, I was surprised to learn, does most of his work back-of-a-napkin-style on telephone notepads.
“What’s up with this?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, tilting his head down and peering over his horn-rimmed glasses, “I’m a nomad.” He gathered the papers and made a motion of tucking them into the breast pocket of his tweed jacket. Always on the go, McAlpine works in inspired bursts in coffee shops, bars, and airport lounges. “Most houses come to me in flashes,” he explains. “The faster they come, the more I trust them.”
Bobby McAlpine is a romantic, a fact he freely admits. “I’m not a classicist,” he says by way of contrast. “I don’t see houses as objects. If you go by a big-columned classical house, and the primary emotion it evokes in you is ownership—wouldn’t it be great to own that—that’s one thing. But if you go past a house, and your primary instinct is how wonderful it must be to be behind that window, then I promise you that was a house conceived with the intimacy of its interior as its primary driving force.”
Despite his disregard for the plantation mansion, so many of McAlpine’s sensibilities trace back to his Southernness. “I don’t look to Southern architecture for inspiration,” he said. “I look to Southern people, the way the isolation and rural context and heat of the South breed a different kind of character. There is a willingness in Southerners to embrace eccentricity in people, and it’s that kind of gladness and inclusion that I find most inspiring.” Those feelings translate into bricks and mortar in many ways—in a graciousness of proportion, in a less formal bleeding of rooms into rooms, even in the unhurried pacing of a long, winding entry that allows guests to decompress and drink in their surroundings.
McAlpine also recognizes the deep connection Southerners feel to the land. If the typical Georgian box, beautiful though it may be, parks its haunches on the ground, peering out through punctures in its beefy container, McAlpine’s houses—narrow, linear, glass-filled, inspired more by modernism—engage with the earth, delivering its inhabitants into the landscape.
I saw firsthand how McAlpine blends traditionalism and modernism later that day when we parked alongside a stucco cottage with a sweeping shake roof he designed for himself in 1995. Though he sold it in 2004 to one of his junior partners, McAlpine still considers this home something of a self-portrait (see “The Work of Bobby McAlpine,” page 82). At first blush, it looked quite traditional—divided-light windows, chimney pots, even a few Tuscan columns along what I took to be the front facade. But then I realized the front is actually the side, and those columns are actually pilasters flanking towering living room windows and supporting an elegantly cantilevered shed dormer, all of it obscured by a hedge. At either end, massive bay windows project from second-story bedrooms. The designer balanced these grand gestures with the self-deprecating swoop of the roofline—the house “bowing its head a bit so it’s not so confrontational.” The same contrast occurs again inside, where low ceilings in the entry and kitchen feel cozy but the adjacent living room ceilings soar upward, lifting the eye and opening the space.
“The lowering and raising of ceiling heights is Frank Lloyd Wright 101,” says Pursely, McAlpine’s former student and colleague. “With Bobby’s work, the skin is traditional, but the DNA is modern.” He draws from such a broad vocabulary in pursuit of a timeless look—houses, in McAlpine’s words, “without an expiration date, but also without an inception date,” what he calls the “inheritable house.”
When Bobby McAlpine talks about architecture, he’s really talking about people. By all accounts, he is very good at connecting with others. Like a poet, he’s intuitive—even when a client may think he wants one thing but really needs something else.
Take the case of the Blount chapel. Red’s son, Tom Blount, himself an architect, originally introduced McAlpine to his father, recommending that he design the chapel. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. It was too personal, and I knew that both Dad and his wife, Carolyn, had totally different ideas about what it should look like,” recalls Blount, who lives in Los Angeles. “Carolyn thought it should be a little carpenter-Gothic church, and Dad, who was always thinking monumentally, probably pictured the Cheops Pyramid. I was in the room with Dad and Carolyn when Bobby told them the church he wanted to build did not look like what either wanted.” McAlpine started describing something totally different—a tiny stone chapel, just eleven feet wide, cupped by the earth, with an entry off to one side so that visitors could enter unseen. “It was just brilliant. Bobby had a perfect understanding of how to communicate with them. They were like purring kittens.”
Today, the loving couple is joined together beneath a single headstone, designed by Bobby McAlpine, behind the chapel—their eternal home.
The original article can be found here.
Photos by Joe Pugilese with additional photographs by Mick Hales
Original Text by Logan Ward
Reprinted with permission of Garden & Gun Magazine
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