Architect David Jameson has built a reputation for cutting-edge design

In just 12 months, Alexandria-based architect David Jameson has won 27 state, national and international design awards — a number that most in his profession would be delighted to rack up in an entire career.

At 43, though, Jameson might just be warming up. This year, he entered Residential Architect magazine’s blind competition, the names of entrants withheld from its jury. More than 800 entries arrived from across the country. Jameson would walk away with not one but two unanimous grand awards, twice as many as anyone in the competition.

“He got the lion’s share,” said Arkansas architect Marlon Blackwell, one of the judges.

Jameson is known for his unique minimalist houses in Maryland, Virginia and the District. None looks like another; he designs each specifically for site and client, rather than attempting to conform to any particular style. “He’s a guy with a 450 Hemi that has incredible restraint at either full bore or idle,” Blackwell said. “He varies his speed: He can scream at you or whisper architecturally.”

In a highly conservative real estate market dominated by colonial and Georgian styles, Jameson’s designs stand out.

Carl Alving, a research investigator at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said his Jameson-designed “Glenbrook Residence” in Bethesda is an outright attention-grabber.

“It’s totally amazing,” he said. “I’ll look out my window and people slam on their brakes, jump out of their cars, grab their cameras and take pictures.”

Alving had asked for a home with three wings: one private, one semiprivate and one public. Jameson gave him a 1,500-square-foot courtyard inserted between two heavy walls, to form a central outdoor pavilion — a prismatic, crystal-like jewel nestled in its landscape. Sheathing the home in bronze, stone and glass, the architect calls it an urban lodge. When he discovered that the demolished former house had been built atop a spring, he adapted and introduced geothermal heating and cooling.

Other recent projects illustrate a striking versatility. In Kensington, in a home owned by Maureen Sandman-Long, an economist with the Government Accountability Office, and her husband Adam, director of Inflectra, Jameson stretched light and space beyond the footprint of a former Cape Cod.

Calling for 60-foot trusses tied into the demolished home’s foundation, he freed the new interior from load-bearing walls.

The building is now a three-dimensional rectangle, featuring subtractive voids at lower right and upper left, with slashes of light ripping through its interior all day long. Clad in oversize fiber cement boards, it’s an abstraction in a gridded landscape of tiny postwar colonials. Shadows from 60-year-old maple trees play out as though upon a movie screen, on exterior walls that are neither white nor gray, but somewhere in between.

On six acres in Great Falls, he created for graphic designer Stephanie Wikberg and her patent-lawyer husband Terry a three-story tower connected to a 100-foot-long horizontal “bar” that plunges, cantilevered, into the woods. In between, a 400-square-foot prismlike entry space links the two larger geometric forms.

A rhythmic pattern of walls and windows, like a piano’s black and white keys, forms a cadence that integrates inside and out. He calls the home “Graticule,” likening the views of the landscape through windows 11 feet tall to the pattern registered by a heartbeat on an electrocardiogram.

In Bethesda, Sara Zhang and Andy Tangborn, scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center, asked him to design a “floating” teahouse at the back of their residential lot. He suspended glass walls from steel beams, then surrounded the structure with bamboo on three sides. Interior and exterior experiences merge into one, as visitors walk completely around the building to enter at its rear.

His “Barcode” addition to a Dupont Circle townhouse owned by D.C. lawyer Willie Agosto has transformed a former glass sunroom into a modern assemblage that emphasizes its two-story verticality with transparent glass walls and exposed structural steel bars. His muscular use of materials is evident as well in a slab of Pietro Cardosa granite for the kitchen’s island, and a rubber floor there, too, a feature borrowed from gymnasiums and a nod to his client’s bad hip.

A careful, cagey plan

It comes as no surprise to learn that Jameson deliberately jump-started his career here 20 years ago, with a carefully calculated, situational drama.

During the recession of 1991, fresh out of Virginia Tech’s five-year architecture program, he presented himself to Washington’s modernist master Hugh Newell Jacobsen, ostensibly seeking an autograph for Jacobsen’s new book. In his hands, beneath the book, was his own portfolio.

“I told him I admired his architecture,” Jameson said. “I told him I was there to work for him, free, for two weeks. That if he didn’t like my work, I’d leave.”

He had already received two rejection letters from the firm, both emphasizing that it did not hire unlicensed architects. But there he stood anyway, undeterred.

The gambit proved a winner. Jacobsen handed him a worn set of Rapidograph pens and dispatched him to sketch a few drawings. When Jameson returned, pen-and-inks in hand, he and his work were put on display.

“He takes me into the drawing room where six architects — the youngest is maybe 40 — are arranged at a ring of desks, with me at the center,” Jameson said. “They’re all standing around looking at my drawings. Jacobsen says I’ll work for free. They all say it looks good.”

Little did he know that, terrified of working nights and weekends en charrette on a competition for the upcoming Euro Disney complex, and certain of a faceoff against names such as Charles Moore and Jaquelin Robertson, the architects probably would have welcomed almost any new pair of hands.

His hands, though, would prove their distinctive worth.

“I felt guilty for not paying him, because he worked so hard,” said Jacobsen, 82.

“On the 15th day, he stroked me a check,” Jameson said.

“I hired him at a perfectly dreadful salary,” Jacobsen said.

McMansions rising

Jameson spent his next five years with Jacobsen, soaking up the tenets of modernism from a man who studied at Yale with Louis Kahn, Vincent Scully and Joseph Albers — and honing his drawing chops with architect Ernie Schickler.

“I spent two years as Ernie’s rough hands,” he said. “I learned how my drawings could support the idea of a project and what’s unique about it.”

Those were bleak days for modernism. The stripped-down style had fallen out of favor nearly everywhere in the nation, while postmodernist forces represented by Robert Venturi slugged it out with deconstructivists led by Peter Eisenman, in what seemed a long twilight struggle over the future of the profession.

And, the concept of the McMansion, born a few years earlier, was proliferating wildly in suburban Virginia and Maryland, breeding houses that most in the design community regarded as pathetic reproductions of a bygone era.

Both concepts, modernism and McMansion, were rare commodities where Jameson grew up, in Delmar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Situated at the crux of the Mason-Dixon Line, the town of 3,000 and the countryside surrounding it are far more interesting visually for the spaces between buildings than their actual architecture.

For the young Jameson, who entertained himself on Saturday afternoons by vigorously redesigning the “Home of the Week” in the back of Delmar’s Daily Times, the value, nature and form of those voided spaces were never lost.

“Where I grew up, there were these agrarian complexes with different scales of buildings, and the in-between space and the outdoor rooms,” he said. “There’d be one small barn and a grain elevator, in an assemblage of parts.”

When he arrived at Virginia Tech in 1986 on a baseball scholarship, he found an architecture school proudly dedicated to eschewing the pedagogy of any particular style or trend. “We look at critical thinking, material use and responding to human needs,” said Jack Davis, dean of the college of architecture.

The school’s hallmark is a lack of borders for its architecture students. “Instead of going to graduate school where they’re telling you what you’re going to be, you find your own voice through eternal soul-searching,” Jameson said.

Finally, a break

Virginia Tech also offers an architecture incubator at its Alexandria campus, and that’s where Jameson found himself in late 1996, his apprenticeship with Jacobsen at an end. For two years he designed modernist jewel-box additions for the back of Chevy Chase colonials, while searching for a niche — and a break.

It came in 1998 in the form of an anomaly: a one-car garage on Capitol Hill. “It was for a young couple with a nice Volvo,” he said. “By code, the building has to touch the alley. But the site is one block away from the Marine Barracks on Capitol Hill, and there are weekly concerts there. So we also created a place to activate a little concert hall between the garage and the house.” It’s a space dedicated to listening to the sounds of the Marine Band concerts.

He designed all of the elements: structure, landscape and furniture, in a totally connected environment. Because the Volvo was longer than the average car, it forced him to consider a gestural, outward curve for the lead-coated copper wall facing the rear of the client’s house. From the alley, the garage is nondescript. From the house, its illuminated double glass doors glow at curve’s center. An elongated handle, placed on the right door, mimics the wall’s curve in precise attention to detail.

“It took us three months,” he said. “I acted as construction manager. The roofer doubled as the wall cladder. The steel guy did double duty with the door handle. The carpenter framed the roof, made the mahogany doors and the slats on the furniture. Five subs in all built it.”

He entered the little project in a 1998 design competition hosted by the Washington American Institute of Architects. And he won.

Frank Harmon, the North Carolina architect heading the jury, asked him to stand at the awards ceremony, saying he wanted to talk to him.

“I’m 29 years old, and I’m having my first conversation with Frank Harmon over 30 other heads in the room, like we’re the only ones there,” Jameson said. “He wanted to know how I came up with the idea of the door registering to the building tectonically, and at the same time registering which door was the primary active one.”

“I’m proud to say I gave him his first design award — that I knew him when,” Harmon said.

In 2006 Jameson was tapped as a fellow by the American Institute of Architects. He was 37 — the youngest to earn that distinction.

“He’s done an awful lot at an early age,” Debbie Burns, executive director of AIA Northern Virginia, said of the honors Jameson has received. “You have to prove you’ve made a significant contribution to architecture beyond your job and area. There has to be some national influence. Usually that takes quite some time.”

“He gives other architects hope,” Harmon said. “He demonstrates that something better can be done — that architecture doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom.”

In tough economic times, when compromise is more often the rule than the exception, that’s a precious commodity.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and regional publications. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsand
artisans.com
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