By Lauren R. Giannini
Imagine this scenario: You and your spouse decide to build the house and barn of your dreams. You find a young architect, discuss what you want, visit the site, and wait for his design. It’s worth it, because his vision is even better than your dreams.
That’s what happened, 25 years ago, when architect Bobby McAlpine made the dreams of a horse-loving couple come true. “Early in my career, I designed a house that was over their horses because the woman didn’t want to be any further away from them than that,” he said. “It was a darling little house — a gable-roofed, petite house that fit exactly over the horses’ stalls. It wasn’t a barn; it was a house that had horses in it.”
It was, of course, a great success with all of its occupants. Since then, Bobby has designed other barns that merit mention even though they’re outnumbered by homes in his extensive portfolio. His intuitive understanding of what comprises a home, his quest for truth and order in the design, his passion for providing people with what they want and need even if they can’t articulate their innermost thoughts — these are just a few of the reasons why his reputation has grown by leaps and bounds, making him one of the top contemporary architects.
Several clients, who bought big, beautiful properties, called Bobby to design their barns, which they wanted to build before the main house. “Once they have the barn built, they start collecting all of the toys, all of the equipment they need to run the farm and maintain it,” said Bobby. “Then, we start building sheds and, before you know it, they never get around to building the main house.” He laughed, and added, “This has happened to us more than once. Other clients developed an apartment in the attic [hayloft] of the barn over the horses. That’s happened two times, at least.”
Bobby tries to retain the essence of a building, barn or church, no matter how it’s being re-purposed. While renovation is a small part of his practice, he has turned barns and farm buildings into party palaces and guest lodging, but he maintains a healthy respect for the intrinsic nature of the original structure. He sees the similarity between barns and churches. “They’re essentially the same building,” said Bobby. “The big surround, the wide aisles – it’s the same language. I think that whatever constitutes that beautiful spiritual balance in a church also exists in a barn. It’s something I always want to bow to.”
A recent project in Tallahassee involved house-design clients who wanted a barn for their daughters’ show hunters. Bobby looked to his go-to horseperson, Lida Cunningham Sease, one of his staff and a lifelong equestrian, to interpret the barn design for McAlpine. Lida’s design for her family’s home and barn reflects Bobby’s influence as well as her own expertise and experiences in horse-keeping and house design.
“When I’m in a meeting with Bobby and a client, I spend the entire time writing down quotes, because the language Bobby uses is so perfect in the way that it communicates the complexity, the beauty and the feeling of what he’s trying to achieve,” said Lida. “My job is to take the magic and turn it into reality — a mixture and weaving of all of Bobby’s vision and his magic, my experience, and the client’s wants and needs. That ‘built form’ is more than the sum of all its parts, and I love when it all comes together.”
In his bio on www.mcalpinehouse.com, Bobby states: “It is no wonder why I love this work. I am called by houses. I understand them.”
Even before he learned to read and write, Bobby was drawing floor plans. This was his comfort zone, the place where he soothed his sensitive nature by drawing houses that were real homes. His family moved six times from one small town to another because of his father’s work in the lumber business. They lived in soulless dwellings that provided Bobby with a “show and tell” of what doesn’t work and why. He had no interest in school sports or clubs or extracurricular activities. He just kept designing houses.
“One day, I was showing something to my mother — again — and she said, ‘Roll up your drawing, get on your bike and ride it to that architect downtown,’” recalled Bobby. “So I did and he hired me as a draftsman. I was 14 or 15 and, at the time, we lived in Haleyville, Alabama, a town of about 3,000 with one architect. After he hired me, the high school I went to finagled a way for me to get out of class at 1:00 every day, two class periods earlier than anybody else, so I could go to work in the architect’s office. I also continued doing all my personal drawing.”
A major turning point in Bobby’s life took place when his parents, Andy and Louise McAlpine, decided to build a family home in Haleyville. His father, who managed sawmills and felt at ease with lumberjacks, had no clue how to relate to his son, a geeky boy who spent his time drawing houses. It was a challenge, of sorts, when Andy announced that he would build the house that Bobby designed for his parents and older sister. The success of their venture earned Bobby his father’s wholehearted approval and cemented their relationship better than ever.
The new family home provided living proof that Bobby, who was only 16 when the house was completed, was on the right track, career-wise. By the time he got to college to study architecture, he was very experienced, albeit mostly self-taught. “I had been traipsing through construction sites, being fascinated with wood-framed houses, learning how to put things together, and how to draw them,” said Bobby.
The Spirit of Design
“I have empathy for the people who sit in front of me and I have faith that they are my next teacher,” said Bobby. “What they want, even if they don’t know how to ask for it or describe it, is within them somewhere, and I find out a lot just listening to them. There’s a repository in me of everything I ever noticed that may or may not be tapped into or used and, often, when someone’s sitting there, talking to me, there are little people inside me holding their hands up who’ve never spoken before, going: ‘Uh, I’ve got this, I know what they’re talking about — if you’ve never done this thing before in your life, now is the time!’ It’s great fun to almost be puppeted by that, to be stimulated by the client and figure what to pull out of myself. The solution is always a combination of things.”
Anytime Bobby visits a property, the first thing he does is set up the furniture and arrange the camp in his head. “I’m not really thinking architecturally,” he said. “I’m thinking about where do I want to sit and look, where do I want to build a fire, who do I want around me and how close. The systems begin to fall into place, and alignments, spaces and postures start to take shape and that becomes a layout, a floor plan that eventually I wonder what it looks like. But I don’t worry at all about what the architectural shape looks like in the beginning.”
What’s important to Bobby is the spiritual connection between the house and its occupants. He wants home to be a haven of truth, beauty and protection — this is true whether you seek his design for a house, barn, farm outbuildings, rural or seaside getaway, even a family café. He wants your home to be the place you love most to run to, the place that always promises you comfort.
McAlpine has offices in Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville; New York City; and Atlanta. Visit their website at www.mcalpinehouse.com.