Finding Home – Bobby McAlpine Moments

One of the great architects of our days, Bobby McAlpine has been changing the landscape of North American residential architecture one house at a time. With more than 30 years of experience in the field and over 500 houses designed,  McAlpine Tankersley Architecture and its interior design counterpart McAlpine, Booth and Ferrier (now McAlpine) have 40 architects and employees with offices in Montgomery, Nashville, Atlanta and New York. Naturally, many things have been written about this awesome architect and I’ve selected a few of my favorite excerpts from interviews and stories in Garden & Gun, Flower and Southern Living Magazine.


‘’ I start with the furniture plan first before there are walls. As I arrange furniture, it tells me where to put the fireplace and then the room falls into shape around it. Architecture is born of the landscape, so the site always has a tremendous impact on me. If I’m designing a mountain house, everything is oriented to the view.’’

‘’Gardens should be extensions of the rooms they’re outside of. I plant things that I would bring into the room, and my preferred palette is pretty limited to white, gray, blue, purple, and green. I like to place characters out in the lawn—eccentricities—such as topiaries that look like they wandered out into the yard.

The landscape is the correction to the architecture. Sometimes it is parallel to the house; sometimes it’s a counterpoint. A modern house frequently needs a traditional garden to soften it. Often, the garden apologizes for what you’ve done.’’


”His work, after all, is 99 percent residential, driven by what he calls “an insatiable hunger for finding home.”

Though humility is rarely associated with great architecture, it’s Bobby McAlpine’s secret ingredient, one reason the Montgomery-based architect’s phone has not stopped ringing since he started practicing thirty-five years ago. Speaking in the language of timber, stone, plaster, and glass, he articulates the intangible qualities of home: a sense of place, communion with nature, permanence, but also peacefulness, security, grace, fellowship, hope, and, yes, humility. To him, a home should be a warm and trusted friend, if also glamorous and occasionally exhilarating. He couldn’t care less about stature or curb appeal or resale value.”


“Bobby doesn’t intellectualize his buildings. He approaches them more from a spiritual standpoint,” says Ken Pursely, who studied under McAlpine at Auburn University and who later worked for him for eight years before opening his own firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. “So many people who work in a traditional palette follow rules and regulations, reference books and maxims handed down from architects like [Andrea] Palladio. Bobby looks at things more from a human or emotional aspect. How a space feels is more important than if it’s traditionally right or wrong.” (Garden & Gun)

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”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.” ”


”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.” ”



” “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.”


” “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.”


”I’m a romantic more than a classicist. If you drive through a neighborhood, some houses are trophies, and your first thought is, “I’d like to own that.” It’s related to your ego. And then there’s the house where you think, “It must be wonderful to be behind that window.” That’s where I live. I like houses that invite you in. They tend to wander, ramble, chase light, and be willful in their shapes.”


Southern Living: What about your entries? Sometimes it’s hard to find the front door of a Bobby McAlpine house.

BM: For me, it’s a Sophie’s Choice situation: If I express the entrance as a house’s primary feature, I am not proclaiming the value of the gathering of people in a singular space. I’d rather express the living room than the foyer. So I’ll put the entry around to the side or in the back but never in the front, which leads to what I call the “gift of disorientation.”

Southern Living: What’s the “gift of disorientation?”

BM: It’s like pin the tail on the donkey. If I twist you and turn you through the site plan two or three times and then lead you into a room that doesn’t face the street, you don’t remember where you came from anymore. And then I’ve got you. You’re all mine. The town is gone. The day is gone. You’re now in the realm of the house.



Southern Living: At 1,900 square feet, your home is much smaller than most of the houses you design.

BM: People get caught up in grandeur, forgetting that the best times they ever had in their lives were in tiny spaces with low ceilings and the best things ever said to them were whispered. When I design a house, I start with the site to figure out exactly what elements you want to engage with emotionally and spiritually. Then I consider the communion of people and objects and create containment around them. My consideration is always what it’s going to feel like together. Only lastly do I concern myself with what a house looks like. The only real value of building a house is to increase the territory of your own heart. The only real truth is to create something that will settle your spirit.