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Designing Between the Lines

While not tied to one style, Philadelphia-based Voith & Mactavish Architects is committed to beauty and context.
By Gordon Bock

According to Webster's dictionary, context refers to the circumstances surrounding an act or event; through its origins in the Latin contexere, it also suggests the act of weaving together. That's a double image that would sit well with the folks at Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP, the Philadelphia-based firm that was founded in 1988 and is now some 20 employees strong. "We're always looking not to copy but to do new things that make a great architectural context stronger," says principal Daniela Holt Voith, AIA, LEED AP. If that goal includes working seamlessly within the warp and weft of a building's style or an institution's physical image, then the versatility and attention to craftsmanship evident at VMA are surely a big help.

Drafting a Practice
Like many inspired enterprises, Voith & Mactavish Architects had humble beginnings. Back in the late 1980s, Voith had been a partner in a Philadelphia architectural firm where she collaborated on a number of projects with Cameron J. Mactavish, AIA, LEED AP – then an associate in the same office. For various reasons, Voith decided it was time to head in new directions and invited Mactavish to join her. "We had a couple of discussions," remembers Voith, "and one weekend evening we took a walk over a railroad bridge that crosses the Schuylkill River in Manayunk, a Philadelphia neighborhood near where we live." The walkway at the bridge midpoint was symbolic – "We asked ourselves metaphorically, ‘Should we jump or not jump?'" says Voith – and after agreeing that the venture held more pros than cons, they shook hands on a new firm.

The two architects set up shop almost immediately thereafter in the front room of Voith's house. "Decades ago, the room had been a butcher shop," explains Mactavish, "so we worked in what was once the meat locker!" After a few months, the fledgling firm sought out its own space, and found a new home in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia. At the time, the factory building still housed sweatshops of workers sewing clothing, as well as several homeless people living within its walls, "Perhaps fitting neighbors for a couple of struggling architects," quips Voith. Nonetheless, the space was hard to beat. "At $7.50 a square foot it was really cheap, even then," according to Mactavish, so it remained VMA headquarters for five years.

Commissions at the time were consistently residential – and historical. "We did a lot of what we call TOHAs," says Mactavish, "that's short for Typical Old-House Additions." He adds, "Philadelphia is rich in residential architecture, so for a two- or three-person firm, we did pretty well designing kitchen additions and master suites, all in hand-drafting; CAD was yet to come." After the stint in Chinatown, the firm moved uptown to an historic 1930s office building on Walnut Street, the former headquarters of the Sun Oil Company, where they have been growing in size and scope for the last 15 years.

About the time of the move, John H. Cluver, AIA, LEED AP, joined the firm as project architect. Upon graduating from Notre Dame in the first class of the then-new Classical Architecture program, Cluver was looking for an office doing work consistent with the career he had in mind, so he sent a resume to VMA. "I reckon what caught Cameron's eye was that it included some copies of my watercolors," remembers Cluver. "It was probably the first time in a long while anyone had sent hand drawings." Mactavish, an award-winning watercolorist himself, agrees. Now a partner and director of historic preservation, Cluver forms the third leg of the team.

Foundations of a Philosophy
The project types that attracted Cluver to VMA cut across all areas of interest, from adaptive reuse and preservation to new construction and planning. Nonetheless, the client list during the last 20 years is clearly strong on independent schools as well as institutions of higher education. When asked if educational projects are something of a firm specialty, Voith replies, "We all have educational clients, but they're a particular passion of mine." Looking back, the affinity for education comes as no surprise. One of the firm's earliest non-residential projects was a comprehensive plan for Germantown Friends School, a K-12 institution with Philadelphia Quaker origins in the 1840s. Voith attended this private day school herself, and this project led to work at another alma mater – Bryn Mawr College – and from there more institutional work.

Voith sees this growth as a natural progression, just one facet of the firm's mounting expertise in working within contexts, especially historic ones. Given the rich stock of historic houses in the Philadelphia region, from textbook rural vernacular forms to urban landmarks by masters like Samuel Sloan, Edmund Gilchrist and Wilson Eyre, Voith notes. "We were well served by cutting our teeth on residential work." Designing additions that harmonize as well as enhance historic houses requires working within existing architectural contexts – and those contexts are exactly what the finely tuned environments of campuses represent. Getting a house right, says Voith, "is really hard and detail-intensive, but the experience makes it easier to jump up in scale to institutional buildings – buildings that have that sense of rhythm and scale and materiality."

Mactavish adds that in recent decades, universities and other learning institutions that have been around a long time have come to appreciate even more their physical environments. "It's part of their brand," he says, "and they realize it's worth preserving and extending because it strengthens their institution and their mission." The challenge then, as VMA sees it, is how to build within such a context so that the work is both supportive and innovative.

Seamless Designs
The ability to appreciate the existing character of a building or institution and work within its framework to blend in harmoniously has become VMA's stock-in-trade. "One thing I've come to appreciate over the years," says Mactavish, "is that there is no signature VMA style; every design really does respond to what's around it." Naturally, the firm takes a similar approach with each client, listening to their needs, wants and desires to make the project a collaboration.

While the principals at VMA may not see their practice as presenting a single, distinctive identity, there are clearly concepts and points of view common to all the partners and their work. One is a pursuit of beauty. Says Voith, "A goal of ours is always to create spaces and buildings that people feel are beautiful." It sounds like a natural aim for anyone in the design profession, but the reality is quite different. As Voith notes, not very long ago architects were trained to focus on function and detail; the elusive quality of beauty was not even in the vocabulary. "Beauty is an intangible in some sense," she notes, "so you know you've hit it when a lot of people encounter something you've designed and they all say ‘Wow, that's beautiful.'"

Another is belief in the narrative possibilities of architecture – that a building can tell a story. For VMA, this quality is not just a theoretical abstraction but a way to, again, work harmoniously within a context. "The references that we draw are not just stylistic," says Voith. "For example, a project at the Wilmington Friends School in nearby Delaware is hard to mistake for anything other than a Quaker Meeting house, because, with features like the quiet use of wood and benches, it references the tradition of Quaker Meeting houses in this area."

So too is the design for the state-of-the-art Math and Science Center at Millbrook School in upstate New York, a 2009 Palladio Award-winner profiled in the June 2009 issue of Traditional Building. While its curtain-walled spaces express the possibilities of science and engineering, the center as a whole connects to the Georgian-style campus through a classical-vernacular looking entrance wing. "The narrative of Math & Sciences is that it could have been an earlier campus building that has grown to embrace the modern world, yet it is entirely new," explains Voith.

Stewardship Both Green and Historic
The firm's work also maintains an emphasis on stewardship. Though the term "green" has become so au courant of late as to be reduced to the choice between this or that building product – or just a buzzword tacked on for "greenwashing" – the broader principles of sustainable architecture have been a cornerstone of VMA since its inception some 20 years ago, and are considered in their broadest sense.

Energy-efficient features, such as geothermal heating or low-e glass, translate pretty directly to dollar savings in operations, but it's not as easy to see the payback in say, sustainable woods or recycled ceramics. Given that some earth-friendly features can still add to the initial price tag, the question becomes whether the design and construction of a LEED-qualifying building, such as the Gold-level Math and Sciences Center, is a hard sell to a client?

True to form, the partners have already crunched a lot of numbers on the subject. With projected energy savings of $35k to $40k a year proven out in its first year of operation, the "green premium" on Math and Sciences calculates to a great capital investment. But dollars and cents are only part of the story. "What the school has gotten out of this project is a building that fits their mission," says Voith, "which, in part, is stewardship of the environment." She continues, "With geothermal systems, passive ventilation and recyclable materials, the building works as a teaching tool. It's something students can look at and learn from, so in that way it's far better than a great encyclopedia on the shelf."

"Five or ten years from now," says Cluver, "architects and clients won't look at sustainable issues in terms of how much they add to the cost of a project, they'll just be an integral part." In fact, VMA strives to put that mindset into practice today. "We don't even discuss whether or not we're going to use recycled and low-VOC materials, or require contractors to recycle construction waste – they're base assumptions now" says Cluver. Adds Mactavish, "What's more, it's getting easier because there's not so much of a learning curve for designers and contractors, and owners are already on board. The market is providing more opportunities – and in a more cost-effective manner."

When it comes to preservation, "Our concept of stewardship," explains Voith, "which is a larger way of framing the concept of sustainable design, really talks about stewardship of our historic buildings." In terms of VMA projects, Cluver notes that "Preservation is independent of client type, so we've done work that is residential, educational, commercial – the full gamut, wherever there's an old building."

An interesting spin on of the latter type is the Bryn Mawr Film institute, an historic commercial project for a non-profit organization that recently won an award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Again, a central issue was context and the ability to work within it. Says Voith, "The first thing to look at is how to use what's already there."

Built in 1926 as a modern combination of an open-air arcade connecting storefronts on the street with theaters set in the back, by the 1980s the facility had not only been chopped into twin screens like many old palaces, it had also lost the vaulted upper half of the arcade to a dropped ceiling and all of the original marquee out front. The project, which was bitten off in phases over four-and-a-half years as the Institute raised funds, involved not only opening up the naturally lit, vaulted skylight over the arcade, once again, but also reinventing some of the historic spaces for new and different uses.

There was also the problem of re-creating an historically appropriate marquee to meet modern needs, such as street versus pedestrian traffic and additional space for advertising films showing at what are now multiple screens. "It's really been a lynchpin in the revitalization of the area, becoming a central part of the community again," Cluver says.

While a commercial preservation project – and a non-profit to boot – is a reasonably novel project type for VMA, the concept of creating gathering places is almost a constant. Whether it's performance venues such as theaters in independent schools, or lecture halls at the university level, or even religious spaces, the firm has a thread of expertise in designing spaces that may take different forms but are similar in that they are where people meet. Stepping back Mactavish observes, "One of the questions that comes up is how to build a community: How do you bring people together, whether it's in a hallway, in a classroom, a whole building, or an ensemble of buildings? How do you create this gathering space out of one thing?" No doubt, the process begins by working with what's around it. TB

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