Q+A: Jim Burton on telling the story of Virginia architecture in Venice 

The Venice Biennale signifies a lot in the architecture world, raising topics that might be prescient or provocative and, through its curatorial lens, suggesting a new direction for design thinking. As part of the broader festival, the European Cultural Centre’s Italian section has hosted an annual exhibition called “Time, Space, Existence,” and invited firms from around the world like Berryville’s Carter + Burton Architecture to participate. This year, Jim Burton, AIA and his design team planned and shaped an exhibition installation called “Tectonics and Craft for a Critical Regionalism,”  a display that chronicles both the firm’s history, its methodology, its influences, and the practice of sustainable architecture in Virginia and beyond. In this interview, Burton talks about the exhibit and its implications for the bigger project of “critical regionalism,” first theorized by Kenneth Frampton and continued by firms like Carter + Burton.

“We do work within an eight-hour radius [of Berryville], but most of our projects are in and around Virginia,” says Jim Burton, AIA, Managing Partner of Carter + Burton Architecture. “Virginians have always wanted to connect with nature, and we enjoy working with those who are seeking that.” Photo courtesy Carter + Burton.

What story are you telling in Venice about architecture in Virginia? What’s the opportunity for your firm?

With this exhibit format we  are trying to bridge between education and practice to help share new and old knowledge about materials, building science and context while assuring there is a craft and beauty that will be appreciated and preserved as a form of sustainability. This celebration of those who have helped inspire and make the work possible has been a reminder of how research and design can evolve over time, while showing respect for  timeless truths about  architecture and collaboration.

With a focus on culture being the other half of sustainability, we reached back to early work to tell the story about detail discoveries in design/build experiments with recycled elements, site-harvested materials and micro-climate contexts. We also included our  wider history of  working with clients and craftsmen including an early Eco Modern house featured in the Washington Post in 1999 all the way up through newer designs under construction now. While there is a trend toward prefabrication and automation, we hope to show it can be relevant to provide energy efficient, loose fit, site-specific designs considering local, diverse and essential materials while supporting a local craft pool and the culture it comes from. We also enjoy celebrating the use of original art, custom rugs and furniture while balancing with the use of modern interior design classics. We have already seen responses from potential and new clients who are interested in some of the newer systems featured in the exhibit such as our use of CLT panels. 

ECC Italy’s exhibition’s permanent title, “Time,  Space, Existence,” is a heady rejoinder to the mission of sustainability. How do you anchor sustainability in a way that expresses what’s happening here in Virginia?

We have tried to focus on sensible tactics like using broken massing with shade buffer porches in wide open southern sites for ventilation and sun control while superinsulating more compact designs in northern wooded or shady mountain top lots. 

For six years running, the European Cultural Centre has hosted “Time Space Existence,” featuring exhibits by architects, artists, and designers at Venice’s Palazzo Mora. Rosa Leonie, photographer (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Master campus plans, urban, suburban and exurban transformation projects featured in our exhibit also show expressions of  specific conditions for creating place making including exterior rooms developed with landscape architect Gregg Bleam of Charlottesville. A palimpsest strategy is often used to bring in controlled light and materiality while showing remnants of the old balancing with the new rather than erasing the past altogether. Working with built-ins and furniture by Mira Nakashima is also a highlight that shares a more universal beauty found in natural material expression.  

There’s another layer to this sustainability, which is that you have to work with new systems as the industry evolves. There are SIPS panels, which have been around for awhile, and there are CLT panels and others now. The building envelope technology continues to evolve with industry leaders like Dr. Joe Lstiburek of the Building Science Corporation and George Swanson, who co-authored the book Breathing Walls. As material qualities and the climate  change, it becomes important to collaborate with specialists and learn from industry mistakes. We have had the privilege of working with Lstiburek on projects and in a new architecture education book.    

Does this participate in, or even expand, the “critical regionalism” concept as Kenneth Frampton conceived it?

I will say that the details we’ve been experimenting with and addressing have been in a microclimate approach rather than a purely “regional” approach — we’re discovering things such as timbers milled on site have responded well against twisting and checking.

Some builders or artisans bring an exceptional skill level that becomes local lore when we are lucky enough to find them and work with them in a collaborative way. Because our designs do not look sentimental to a region, it may be harder to typecast or label the  “ism”  in this discussion.

How do Virginia’s biomes define its diversity? 

We do work within an eight-hour radius, so we are up in Buffalo, New York, and down in parts of North Carolina, but most of our projects are in and around Virginia. Virginians have always wanted to connect with nature, and we enjoy working with those who are seeking that. We see a wide range of microclimates in Virginia. For example, sites south of Front Royal can be several degrees hotter than sites closer to West Virginia and Maryland. We have a site in Warren County near Browntown that is seven degrees cooler, and the wind continues to blow almost year-round up there. Our High Knob mountain top sites in Warren County have shown weather patterns similar to climate zones seen in northern Pennsylvania and New York.  

The four-season beauty also can be unforgiving, with high humidity and heavy rain in shoulder months. Good detailing and planning with old and new knowledge can ensure comfort as people seek to live in the type of landscape that resonates with their instincts the most. We work hard to respect the qualities of the place and help people experience these places in a fun and exciting way.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Carter + Burton’s exhibit.

William Richards is a writer and the Editorial Director of Team Three, an editorial and creative consultancy based in Washington, DC

Carter + Burton Architecture showcases regional design in Venice

Carter + Burton Architecture in Berryville, Virginia, is excited to announce its participation in the sixth edition of the biennial architecture exhibition, “Time Space Existence,” at the Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy. The show opened on May 20, 2023, and will run until Nov. 26, 2023. The European Cultural Centre (ECC) Italy in collaboration with Open Space Venice has curated a diverse assortment of works from various international architects, artists, designers, academics and photographers to draw audience attention toward new expressions of sustainability in response to climate change. As the only Virginia architecture firm represented at the show, Carter + Burton takes immense pride in representing regional perspectives internationally.

Architect Jim Burton and his design team planned and shaped the exhibit over the course of six months. “Tectonics and Craft for a Critical Regionalism” is a display with four sections that demonstrate the firm’s commitment to the themes of the exhibition. A vertical totem of mentors and inspirations includes Raphael Moneo, Jane Jacobs, Sam Mockbee, Chris Risher, George Nakashima, Joe Lstiburek and others. “It has been a pleasure going back to celebrate those who have inspired our work from our early development,” says Burton, “while also featuring the craftspeople who have provided the time and care to create their best work.”

The 9-meter long  exhibit is anchored with a display shelf of sample materials and collaborators including builders, makers and designers. The backdrop features new designs and a film touching on the history of the work and its evolving diversity.   

“It gives a detailed overview of Carter + Burton’s approach on architecture, in a meaningful  and extensive way,” says Suzanne van der Borg, an exhibition organizer with the ECC’s architecture section. Van der Borg is one of 13 organizers who cover architecture, art, design, and sculpture for ECC Italy, a satellite of the Netherlands-based European Cultural Centre, founded in 2002 by Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer and responsible for more than 50 exhibitions in 10 countries. 

Throughout its portfolio, Carter + Burton has tested regional and universal materiality in its forward-thinking microclimate responses. Collaborations with craftsmen, designers and cutting-edge building systems reflect its process of blending site, program, technical innovation and tasteful artistry. The firm has been passionate about combining modern, sustainable and contextual design. Highlighted projects incorporate net zero logic, natural light, acoustic engineering and eco-friendly building materials while advancing the evolving building science discussion.

Carter + Burton cares deeply about connecting structure and space to site conditions, making sure each project inspires a storytelling spirit borne out of craft and those who make it possible. Some details feature a handmade rigor; others are fabricated remotely for integration, providing a diverse approach. This hybrid vigor creates beauty and pride in placemaking. 

Learn more at carterburton.com, and follow either Carter Burton or Jim Burton on Instagram