Paul Bates Ushers in a New Era of Southern Cool in His Contemporary Birmingham Cottage
Since opening his office in 2000, Alabama-based architect Paul Bates has been quietly assembling a body of work in a style that might be described as classical or modern, according to the project, but always a little…different.
His work is innovative, often bold (convince clients to make an entirely black house? Check.), but always consistent in its sure and subtle taste. I think of how architect Gil Schafer has a voice; one can close one’s eyes and know that a house by him will be about the restraint of Charles Platt or perhaps the crisp American elegance of Bulfinch. Likewise the work of Tom Kligerman relates to Lutyens and Voysey, and his investigation of what he can do to move that vocabulary forward. This will come to be said about Bates, in connection to architects from the late 1930s like John Volk and Maurice Fatio, in whose quietly innovative hands classicism became viable for the Atomic Age. If you care about this style and love Palm Beach because of them and Beverly Hills because of Paul Williams, it’s not an exaggeration to say some of the most sophisticated work in the world is coming out of Birmingham, Alabama, in the form of houses by Bates.
His home, which he shares with his husband, Alnashmi “Nashmi” Alketbi, is an example of the deftness with which this architect makes tradition cool. The recipe involves equal parts respecting the past and seeing around corners to find a future more stylish than that past ever actually was (cue the round window). I caught up with Bates at his newly completed residence and spoke about these things—also how a 12-foot high door by David Adler can become a kitchen cabinet and where a young man growing up in the South found glamour and learned to use it.
Paul Bates: When we bought this house, it was just by chance. We were riding by and I said, “Oh, I’d love for us to buy that house one day.” And then six months later, it came on the market. We walked in it once and we bought it. I thought we could move in just as it was, but when we went back a second time, I realized we couldn’t. The beams in the living room were all sort of a dowdy dark brown, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. Right after that Nashmi and I went to Paris, and I saw all these examples where they weren’t afraid to paint old beams. So that’s what I did, and it was probably the most important step to freshening things up.
David Netto: I’ve noticed in your work consistently that you have a certain love of what might be called the year 1937. There’s a conversation you’re always having in your design vocabulary with something that happened in architecture right at that moment, in between modernism and tradition.…Is what I’m saying true? How did you learn about this particular moment in architecture that I’m referring to?
PB: I used to watch old movies with my mother. But the other thing I’ve always been interested in is the work of David Adler and buildings of his like the Clow house in Chicago. It was brutal and kind of stark on the outside, but inside it felt modern and clean, if still arranged traditionally. He did it best and I think I just fell in love with that strategy to make traditional houses feel sleeker. My kitchen cabinets here at home were directly inspired by doors at Clow.
DN: One trick I’ve noticed you love is to work in a round window. It is a recurring element in your work, and we have one here in your bathroom.
PB: Pure forms, or forms in their purest state, I always love. Whether it’s a perfectly round window or a room that’s a cube, there’s something about those perfect geometries. I don’t design with them in mind, but I go back to the forms and find a way to bring them in. Also the round window is something we can touch and operate. I always do them so that they pivot if they are accessible to open. People like to engage, and use, whatever is given to them.
DN: There’s something about the stair, very sensual with its solid wall reminiscent of a parapet wall, that has too much glamour to have originally been in this kind of stockbroker Tudor house. Did you put that in?
PB: I did, yes. We tore out and replaced the stair. Now it’s funny you mention glamour. I’ve always loved glamorous things; when I was growing up, my mother drove a Lincoln Continental Mark IV. It was huge. It was the length of our house practically. And it had oval opera windows in the back. There was something very glamorous about it, and I’ve always aspired to that. But at the same time, there’s this dichotomy going on with me. I’m after sweetness just as much as anything else.
DN: I see that sweetness, although I might have called it humility. That natural wood you love to use, usually white oak, and you never paint it. You did a whole kitchen out of it on another project. Like the oculus window, it’s a signature of yours to use this raw oak a lot, and there’s a humility to that, which goes hand in glove with the glamour.
PB: Well, that’s true. And for me there’s something very genuine about it and authentic. Most important to me is building a relationship with a client and being genuine. I came from the bayou—I don’t want to put on any airs. I also grew up with a dad who was a woodworker, and woodworkers love raw wood. They don’t like to stain it; they don’t like to paint it. You can watch it age as it slowly deepens in color.
DN: Let’s talk about the young energy in this house; for example in details like your doors made of horizontal boards—some of which have a porthole window.
PB: I started doing horizontal planks because it felt a little modern. But because it still seemed traditional, people still felt comfortable and didn’t realize it was modern. If I started out telling somebody, “Oh, I’m going to do this modern room for you,” that’s often not what they want to hear here in the South.
DN: If you wanted to share something with me that was a regret or a mistake, what would that be? Every project has one of those, right?
PB: OK, I’ll tell you. I insisted to Nashmi that “I want this solid Dutch front door.” Because we don’t have many doors on the lower level, I wanted it to relate to the other old oak doors with horizontal planks. Well, when it went up it made things so dark. In the end I had that top half remade with glass lights and folding wood shutters on the inside. So I make mistakes all the time. And life is an experiment. I don’t have that opportunity necessarily to experiment in a chancy way with other people, but I can do it here.
DN: As Julia Child said when she dropped a potato pancake on the table, “Remember you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.”
Featured in our March/April 2023 issue. Interior Design by Paul Bates and Alnashmi Alketbi; Architecture & Landscape Design by Paul Bates; hotography by Becky Luigart-Stayner; Produced by Rachael Burrow; Written by David Netto.
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