Poetry of Place
Architect Bobby McAlpine’s second book documents the lush prose—and unmistakable genius—of his Southern design firm, McAlpine, and the intangible spirit it breathes into every structure
As principal of his eponymous firm since 1983, Atlanta architect Bobby McAlpine is revered for timeless, inheritable architecture that is at once pared down and distinctive. As an artist, McAlpine has an esoteric, almost mystical manner, while as an architect, he is a master at distilling down ideas to their purest, sometimes monastic forms.
This flair for the spare was imperative to the owners of a new residence in Birmingham’s upscale Redmont neighborhood. The house sits upon “the edge of a precipice with an outrageous, comprehensive view,” says McAlpine, an Alabama native. “You can look out onto the city as if it were a harbor of lights.”
As worldly wise as they are book smart, the homeowners, both academics, embody a studied seriousness that’s perfectly captured in the unadulterated stucco of the home’s street-facing facade. It is formal and fortressed, like “the embassy for a country whose name you can’t quite remember,” says McAlpine. Or, as he even more curiously describes it, “a beautiful woman without eyebrows.”
Though an architect by trade, McAlpine tends to approach a project like a storyteller composing a narrative or a filmmaker setting up a scene (ironically rendered more authentic by the use of smoke and mirrors). He often talks about something he calls “emotional accuracy,” or capturing the essence of his clients during a particular phase of life. While often a moving target, personal truth, he says, always trumps doctrine. It is that tireless search for truth that informs the ethos behind his firm.
“When [a new client] shows up at our office, they present the opportunity to mine ourselves and our psyches for what is pertinent,” he says. “All the hunting and gathering and depositing we’ve done in our [mental] archives finally gets to speak, because at last there is a call to it.” While McAlpine typically lays down the initial idea for a house, he says it’s his associates who deftly fill in the gaps: “They mature and develop that initial vision, especially if it’s vaporous.”
In the case of this stately Redmont residence, collaboration was central. Birmingham designer Betsy Brown followed McAlpine’s foundational architecture with interiors that are expertly edited and largely austere; McAlpine coined the term “Gustavian blanc-ness” to describe Brown’s light-handed approach and ethereal gray palette throughout—save a colorful library of textbooks upstairs.
“Bobby’s homes are very light-filled,” Brown says. “They flow very well. He is a master at putting together a plan with minimal hallways and beautiful allées from one room to another. The views throughout this house are evidence of this; they are very powerful.”
As visitors enter the home by way of an elongated gallery, a floating scrim blurs the cinematic cityscape beyond. “I didn’t want to give it away just yet,” McAlpine explains. “Having that veil between two realities allows you to take the time to greet and hold and address someone before you gush about where you are.”
Spanning nearly the width of the entire house, the grand salon’s golden symmetry showcases those jaw-dropping views under a soft swath of Roman shades—an effect McAlpine compares to an 18th-century palace draped in sheets for the winter. Like the master bedroom he likens to a “launchpad” into the great wild yonder, McAlpine is constantly sussing out stories and giving them flight.
That thrill for narrative is central to his second book, Poetry of Place: The New Architecture and Interiors of McAlpine (Rizzoli, $55), out this month. Throughout its 288 pages, McAlpine’s voice comes on as strong as if you were chatting with him in his office. For that, credit writer Susan Sully, whose prose reflects her long-standing rapport with the architect. Yet, Poetry of Place reflects a noticeable shift in perspective and tone from The Home Within Us, the pair’s first tome. In this collection, McAlpine gives each house a voice—appropriate, since his sophomore book is the house personified. This rhythmic dialogue is both reflected and illustrated through each of the 19 projects featured, including work from the firm’s celebrated interior design partners, Atlanta’s Susan Ferrier and Nashville’s Ray Booth.
So what is poetry of place? “It’s about the desire to create something that is so deeply familiar to you. The net reward is not just living in a place, but creating a place so congruous to who you are that there is nowhere else in the whole world that makes you and your loved ones feel that particular way, because it’s an extension of who you are, and it could not exist without you,” McAlpine says. “In our fourth decade of practice, I think we trust—more than ever—who’s in front of us.”
Operating out of four offices and working across the country, architect Bobby McAlpine is known for merging whimsy, texture and unconventional proportions with classical foundations. Featuring 300 color photographs of the majestic spaces his architecture and interior design firm, McAlpine, has created, Poetry of Place: The New Architecture and Interiors of McAlpine (Rizzoli, $55), takes readers on an evocative journey that includes nods to vintage Hollywood, the boundlessness of imagination, the quest for beauty and truth, the spectrum of primal emotion, the gentleness of unconditional love and the denouement of a person’s ultimate homecoming.