Colin Lenton

For the past three decades, architect Robert Gurney has been building homes for the Washington, D.C., elite who appreciate modern architecture. The “form follows function” ethos of the legendary Bauhaus school lives on in his minimalist compositions. But in other ways, he’s a maximalist, exploring a balance of horizontal and vertical lines in lieu of straightforward symmetry, and celebrating the rich textures of materials like hot-rolled steel and board-formed concrete. “He weaves together materials that are refined and raw. His work is this beautiful tapestry of materiality,” says fellow D.C. architect David Jameson.

Gurney developed a heightened appreciation for buildings from a very young age. He grew up in Staten Island, N.Y., in a brick house that was built by his father, a bricklayer and fireman. Gurney came to D.C. to study architecture and play basketball as an undergraduate at Catholic University, where he also got his master’s degree in architecture. In that design era, postmodernism held full sway; Michael Graves’ eye-popping Portland Building was completed in 1982, the year that Gurney graduated. But Gurney was most inspired by the work of D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. “He was designing abstract versions of traditional houses, forms that people were familiar with,” says Gurney. “He did gable roofs with no overhangs and hidden gutters, floor-to-ceiling-windows, and crisp, clean white interiors with no trim and baseboards.” Jacobsen also liked to break a house down into many volumes, creating different spatial experiences for its occupants, something that Gurney also took to heart.

Over the years, Gurney has worked on a wide range of residences, from urban infill projects to suburban homes to mountain and coastal retreats. For the first decade of his career, he worked as a sole practitioner, primarily on renovations and additions. But he was fortunate to gain an important mentor early on: Hugh Newell Jacobsen himself. In the late ’80s, his wife, Therese Baron Gurney, who is an interior designer, took a job with Jacobsen’s firm, and the connection bloomed from there.

“Jacobsen was the grandfather with the gray beard that would give advice,” recalls Gurney. “He was doing incredibly beautiful houses all around the world, and he would recommend me for local projects.”

FITCH O'ROURKE RESIDENCE: The fireplace is an artistic composition of geometric shapes and different materials.
Paul Warchol Photography FITCH O'ROURKE RESIDENCE: The fireplace is an artistic composition of geometric shapes and different materials.

In 1999, Gurney completed his breakthrough project, the major renovation of a 1900 row house for the executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ D.C. chapter. For the Fitch O’Rourke residence, Gurney designed a contemporary rear facade and interiors. Receiving top honors for interior architecture from the national AIA in 2001, the home’s highlights include a distinctive fireplace of rusted steel and board-formed concrete, and a screen of copper-wire mesh, suspended on pulleys, to cover built-in storage.

Among the projects Gurney has completed in recent years is 4 Springs Lane, a vacation home in rural Virginia. Gurney designed it to frame views of the Blue Ridge Mountains; the row of crisp, transparent volumes allow people in the backyard pool to see straight through the house to the distant landscape. Providing a counterpoint to all the glass, the house is clad in a mix of sleek black fiber cement panels, warm-hued mahogany planks, and rough dry-stacked slate.

4 SPRINGS LANE: Set on a 24-acre site in Rappahannock County, Va., this home optimizes views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
Maxwell MacKenzie 4 SPRINGS LANE: Set on a 24-acre site in Rappahannock County, Va., this home optimizes views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.

Gurney’s material explorations continue in earnest, indoors and out. “There are materials that aren’t expensive but have very rich qualities, which come to the forefront if you use them in unexpected ways,” he says. For a high-rise condominium in D.C., he worked with a metal fabricator to remove some of the mill finish on hot-rolled steel in order to retain some of its reflectivity. Lining the interior core of the dwelling, the slightly silvery panels bounce natural light around the space and make it brighter. “I’m trying to make walls that are more tactile,” he says. “Less drywall, more raw materials.”