Monday, May 17, 2010

Peter Bohlin...The Visceralist

Combining a sensitivity to sight with an elemental feel for materials and an affinity for people, Peter Bohlin has created a body of work grounded in the principles of enduring architecture.

Peter Q. Bohlin was born in 1937 in  New York. This American architect is the winner of the 2010 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA)and a founding principal of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, established originally in 1965 as Bohlin Powell in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
The firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson has five offices in Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco. In 1994, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was honored with the Firm Award presented by the American Institute of Architects. Peter has been a guest design critic and a visiting professor at architecture schools. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and his Master of Architecture degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Peter is the famed architect behind Apple’s epic glass cube for the Fifth Avenue store in New York. As his partner Bernard puts it, "Peter is a total computer illiterate”. He still sketches on paper rather than by computer and prefers talking in person to text messages.
Yet Bohlin interpreted Apple head honcho Steve Jobs’ wish to create a kind of “clubhouse” for Apple fans so well that the Cube has become one of New York’s most-photographed landmarks. Even though he’d never designed a retail space, Jobs chose Bohlin to design this Manhattan magnet for Apple lovers based on his work for the new Pixar headquarters and studios in Emeryville, California. Steve “didn’t care” about that handicap, said Karl Backus, the principal in BCJ’s San Francisco office who manages the firm’s Apple projects. That’s because Jobs thought of the stores not as retail spaces but as social spaces. Steve believed it was more important for the stores to offer a unique and compelling experience, in much the way that a Frank Gehry-designed museum does. Otherwise, why would people bother to make a special trip to buy a product they could order more easily on the Web?

During his first meeting with Jobs to discuss the Apple Cube, Jobs talked about a store that would serve as a sort of clubhouse for Apple’s loyal followers. While Jobs spoke, Bohlin drew the rough outlines of a cube in front of the General Motors tower. “The best thing about that building is its narrow profile. So I thought, ‘What is the inevitable shape to contrast that?’ ” Bohlin said. And voilĂ : the Cube, which currently ranks number five in New York landmarks, according to a Cornell University study of 35 million Flickr photos. Bohlin’s work for Apple helped earn him the 2010 gold medal from the American Institute of Architects, where his use of for his versatile, contextual use of materials was praised. In July, another Apple store of Bohlin’s design will open in Philadelphia.

A measure of fame has come to BCJ only in the last decade, as its high-profile stores for Apple have become landmarks in cities across the globe, but the scale of its work still varies widely. In Seattle, where BCJ opened an office in 1997, the firm recently designed the new city hall, a green-roofed branch library, and a charming three-unit row house faced in red-and-blue HardiePanel siding. Bohlin is committed to maintaining that range, even though his firm has 12 partners and five offices on both coasts. From the beginning, he says, “We worked hard to seem like we weren’t working too hard. My practice sprung from a modest place, and I had to prove myself by doing modest things.”

One of those modest things, the 1976 Forest House, was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. As James Timberlake, of the Philadelphia-based architectural firm KieranTimberlake, said in his speech nominating Bohlin for the Gold Medal, “Imagine, if the house were removed, that the site would be left completely intact, an extremely sensitive approach to its intrusion on nature.” The firm’s Shelly Ridge Girl Scout Center, built in Philadelphia in 1984, won a U.S. Department of Energy grant as a demonstration project for passive solar heat—teaching the Scouts, and the government, about sustainability long before it was a buzzword.
Two recent residential projects from BCJ’s Seattle office show the firm moving in some striking new directions, without losing track of nature, site, and sun. The Envelope House, in Seattle, completed in 2006, was a low-budget project, so crisp and cute I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it win its architect a “best new practice” award, or turn up in Brooklyn. When I mention this, Bohlin is pleased: “We hope to do more versions all over,” he says, clearly energized by the constraints of cost and site. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Waipolu Gallery and Studio, in Oahu, a boulder of a building, clad in copper and designed to display an art collection and to open up onto views of sea and mountains. It also features a stunning glass bridge.

Bohlin, when asked why he thinks he won the Gold Medal this year... “I think the whole culture has lost its bearing a bit,” he says. “I have a belief in the nature of things, in really solving things, and the ability to do it in a way that is quite visceral.” This sounded exactly right to me. BCJ’s new monograph, published this month by Rizzoli, includes short essays by Glenn Murcutt, Mack Scogin, Tod Williams, and Will Bruder. These are Bohlin’s colleagues: thoughtful people who are doing good work and have been doing so for some time; who have not courted the press, who are interested in materials, who have never turned their backs on modernism. They may all be better known than Bohlin, but it’s hard to argue that they have better practices. The AIA jury voted for longevity over spectacle. Bohlin thinks he was up against Thom Mayne and Adrian Smith: big names, big works. But a profession turning inward, correcting itself after the boom years, was looking to send a message by choosing something else. “Architecture has become a bit of a fashionable enterprise,” says Bernard Cywinski, Bohlin’s partner since the late 1970s and the head of the firm’s Philadelphia office. “Peter’s work is very fresh and very honest. It can be heroic when it has to be.”

The connection between the crystalline geometry of BCJ’s Apple cube in Manhattan and the theatrical log columns of its Grand Teton National Park visitors’ center (or even the brawny roof beams at Combs Point) is not immediately obvious. Karl Backus, the San Francisco principal in charge of Apple, remembers a speech Bohlin gave in 2008 at the University of California, Berkeley, on just this topic. “The given theme was about making places,” Backus says.

“Peter chose to present the store on Fifth Avenue and the visitor center. Peter talked about the two different building forms looking like they fit in elegantly and gracefully in their settings.” On Fifth Avenue, Bohlin says, “we made it”—the GM Building plaza—“what it should have been. I have always been interested in the nature of people, how you titillate them to draw them through a building. If you make an intelligent structure for a place, then it all seems inevitable.”

One of the projects that Bohlin is currently devoting his time to is a new civic center for Newport Beach, California. The firm entered the competition at the suggestion of Daniel Lee, a young architect in the Philadelphia office, who has come to Wilkes-Barre today to go over the plans with Bohlin. BCJ is headquartered on the top floor of Wilkes-Barre’s tallest building, a 12-story tower designed by Daniel Burnham. Out the windows, wedding-cake terra-cotta is visibly sagging in places. The civic-center design, which recently won the competition, is distinctly Californian (and distinctly un–Wilkes-Barrean): low and broad, with six glass-fronted bays containing offices and culminating in a silvery half-dome council chamber. The dome will be made of tensile fabric (the lightest suggestion of monumentality), while the administrative offices will be shaded with a series of wavy projecting roofs.

Today Bohlin is fixated on the long, ramped hallway that links the office pods. “It is like a necklace connecting these sections,” he says, “and we need to tune it where people are going to touch the handrail or turn the corner.” Tuning is another frequently used word in his architectural vocabulary. It is what happens in the design process after the spaces have volume but before they have a quality. They need to be tuned for comfort, for beauty, for affection. It is a word from music, but to Bohlin it has a tactile quality. He describes “combing” the living room of his own house with horizontals: shelves, cabinets, drawer pulls, an elevated stone hearth. Other words Bohlin likes are touching (the emotional connection of people to places) and potent position, which illustrates the moment when a space is revealed to a visitor. The dining table at Combs Point is in the potent position. You are in the potent position as you enter the Apple cube. He describes his role in the practice as “rattling”—keeping everyone on their toes by never being satisfied or by taking on new challenges (like this competition, a rarity).
Bohlin’s longstanding devotion to residential architecture is also a form of rattling. He seems to feel that it keeps him honest as an architect. “A house you can do with two or three people,” he says. “Doing it yourself is a little trite, but a small building you can do in your head.” There is an obvious line from the Forest House (his first big break) to the Combs Point residence, completed in 2008. Both are sited in ravines and designed to follow the existing paths and preserve their trees. Both open to the sun and protect the private zones. That the Combs Point house is grander—with its winking roof, separate guesthouse the size of an early Marcel Breuer residence, and Frank Lloyd Wrightish fireplace—seems justified by the passage of time. That Combs Point is still totally casual seems the result of Bohlin’s experience and the circumstance of his relationship with the clients.

The same ideas about planning and community that Bohlin explores in his public buildings are evident in all his houses. Bohlin tends to turn buildings into necklaces of separate spaces, making an interesting path where there would otherwise have been a boring hall. Each project is a small, chatty town with Bohlin as its honorary mayor. The warmth and naturalness of his buildings, from the 1960s to the 2010s, are a product of his personality, engaging rather than dominating the client, landscape, or city.

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