Enlarging Lives: Richmond Architect Sanford Bond's 5 Most Important Design Principles 

click to enlarge Spirit, context and clarity of form are important to good architecture, says Sanford Bond at the office of 3North Architects.

Scott Elmquist

Spirit, context and clarity of form are important to good architecture, says Sanford Bond at the office of 3North Architects.

As co-founder and principal of 3North Architects, and a practitioner in Richmond for almost half a century, Sanford Bond has shaped some of the city’s most iconic buildings.

The Richmond Ballet building looks like a factory, which indeed it is, to produce dancers. Dominion Power’s corporate complex is all but melded, raftlike, into the north river bank at the head of Tredegar Street. His firm’s distinctive residential designs are highly coveted by those who call them home. And he was a co-founder of BCWH Architects.

Did Bond make the right decision in devoting a life to architecture?

“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s allowed me to exercise my creative self. But while the conceptual part resides in the architect, it’s no good if it doesn’t get out of the architect. … But unlike Howard Roark [the heroic architect in Ann Rand’s “The Fountainhead”], it really is a collaborative profession. You need construction people who are excellent. You need staff in your office who wants to push ideas and projects forward. It takes all these people to make architecture.”

In November, Bond received the William R. Noland Award, the highest honor the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects might bestow upon a member.

So you’d think that this éminence grise would have accumulated plenty of responses through the years to the question: What makes for excellent design?

Think again.

Settling into a luncheon of chicken pot pie at Camden’s Dogtown Market, a Manchester bistro in the Corrugated Box Building situated a floor below his firm’s studio, Bond steers the conversation back to principles that have guided him since the late 1960s, when he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Maurice Smith, a New Zealander and student of visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, was his design professor. Much that Smith passed on to the soft-spoken but intense architect is still shared with architects and staff joining 3North.

Bond listed and elaborated on five principles that are important no matter how large or small the budget, or how specific or broad the scope of the project. “There is always an opportunity to enlarge the lives that will inhabit the environment,” he says.

Sanford Bond’s Five Principles of Design:

1. Spirit

“Does a design possess ‘something extra,’ unique to the project, which uplifts the human spirit? This was important at the Virginia Eye Institute [a Bond-designed, outpatient medical facility built immediately east of the Huguenot Bridge in a flood plain]. The goal was to create a space that would be more restful and reduce the anxiety level of the patient — there’s a lot of stress when anticipating an operation. The waiting room has a large glass wall that overlooks the canal. The idea is for patients to connect with nature. I tend to be user-focused, to design from the user’s point of view.”

2. Sense of Place

“Is there a memorable, landmark quality about the design? This is so fundamental. You always want to design something from which people can take something away — not just another high-rise lobby with marble floors and polished elevators. I think the Rothko Chapel in Houston is memorable. [Dedicated in 1971 and designed by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, it is a contemplative space in which hang minimalist color field paintings by Mark Rothko.] There is a quality of light the way in which the light enhances the paintings. It’s very dark and the paintings are dark. You sit down and the paintings start to emerge out of the darkness.”

3. Fits into Context

“Does the design appropriately respect its site and context and fit naturally into its setting? A great example of this is Falling Water [Frank Lloyd Wright’s weekend home for the Edgar Kaufman family of 1939, which was built with native stone and into the hillside and over a cascade in western Pennsylvania]. Time after time architects vote this as being the finest achievement in American architecture. Something very different is the Top of the Rock Observation Deck at Rockefeller Center in New York City. To the north it is on-axis with, and looks straight across breathtaking views of Central Park, to the south on-axis with the Empire State Building. And since the Virginia Eye Institute is in a flood plain, the notion was to create a pier. The structure had to be raised, but it all fits.”

4. Clarity of Form and Organization

“These go hand in hand: Is there a clear form and comfortable massing of the building and does the detailing reinforce the big idea? And is there a clear sense of how the building is organized, how the parts fit together and how the uses relate to one another? Every building should have a big idea that drives everything else. This can be a difficult [element] of design, depending on the project. Hospitals are a good example — there are hospitals you can get lost in. But hospitals have so much going on. Design is often driven by technical requirements, not its patient users. Hospitals don’t make it easy for the users. You want to know how to get into a place and know where to go. A clear sense of organization reduces stress.”

5. Clarity of Materials

“Is there artistry in detailing and fitting the material together in a harmonious manner? What makes a comfortable space is the way in which things go together. If it’s done properly, you don’t think about it, it’s a holistic idea. This is also where a lot of buildings lose it. Part of it is about understanding the characteristics of construction materials. Most people are overly conservative and like things that are familiar, it’s a stretch to get them into something new. But some people have more vision than others and like new discoveries.”


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