Tra Publishing talks with Chad Oppenheim, the celebrated architect whose work is the subject of Spirit of Place. We discuss his inspirations and the importance of connecting with our surroundings.
Spirit of Place, by Oppenheim Architecture, is an extended meditation on the vital connection between architecture and nature. The beauty of the natural world inspires and is celebrated in the award-winning work of this Miami-based firm. Spirit of Place gathers seven of the firm’s projects from around the globe that highlight the profound relationship between the built environment and the earth. This first monograph on the firm’s work was initially published as a collector’s edition in Spring 2018, and as a result of market demand, was brought out as a trade edition in Summer 2019. Both editions are available through Tra Publishing’s website, and the trade edition is distributed by Simon & Schuster.
Chad Oppenheim founded Oppenheim Architecture (Miami, Basel, New York) in 1999. The firm has been praised for its ability to transform the prosaic into the poetic and has garnered global recognition for large-scale urban architecture, hotels and resorts, private residences, interiors, and furnishings. It has received more than seventy industry awards and distinctions, and its work has been featured in more than one thousand publications. The Miami-based Oppenheim is a graduate of Cornell University and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He has lectured widely and has taught at several architecture schools, including Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
What was your goal with this book?
Spirit of Place celebrates the beauty of places where our firm has created an integral union between the built and the natural worlds. It’s our intent in our work to have our projects seamlessly blend with the environment to achieve an incredible, almost silent synergy. In Spirit of Place we share this philosophy, this idea of architecture becoming one with its surroundings.
Where do you go for inspiration?
As an architect, I am tremendously inspired by nature and by art, especially the work of Richard Serra, James Turrell, and Michael Heizer, particularly the way these artists work with nature and the site to create amazing experiences. I love being immersed in nature, disappearing in places that have not been modified by civilization, and I find an incredible silence and energy and beauty in all aspects of the natural world. At Oppenheim Architecture, we want to celebrate those things but we don’t want to alter them. We want to find a way to preserve and to amplify these environments. It’s about being silent in the landscape but capturing incredible drama and monumentality within.
Can you describe the concept of "spirit of place" and how it drives your creative process?
Like archeologists, we begin to explore, investigate, and learn about the history and the culture and then the flora and the fauna. From that we get a feeling, which we try to express through the architecture. Our goal is to figure out how to create the most extraordinary experience in that particular place.
You include a variety of sites in Spirit of Place. You focus on seven of the firm’s projects, categorized by the natural elements predominant at each location: dune, desert, stream, river, sea, canyon, and peninsula. Your firm has designed hundreds of projects since its inception in 1999. What was your selection process in choosing these seven sites to highlight in the book?
The projects that we show are all around the world in many different climates and environments—in the mountains, in the desert, in canyons, in coastal conditions—but each one has an environment that we really love and enjoy. We believe that you can celebrate the beauty and the joy in any environment. The projects in Spirit of Place tend to be more nestled in natural settings but there’s a tremendous amount of beauty and nature in urban settings as well, so these projects were really selected for their ability to create a certain character, one that is harmonious with its surroundings. This wide spectrum of projects shows that we’ve been able to fulfill this philosophy around the world.
What are the challenges of incorporating local resource materials and natural elements, such as light, air, water, sky, and vegetation into your designs?
We like to work with local materials, that is to use local stone, mix local aggregates and sands into the concrete, to make everything blend and become one with its environment. The other materials that we use are the more ethereal materials such as the sky, water, vegetation, clouds. These are the materials and the things that we actually focus on. And we’re able to let the architecture be essential so that nature and the beauty of nature that surrounds us and we take for granted is really what is heightened and amplified.
How does design enrich our relationship with the natural world?
We are so connected via technology, and so disconnected precisely because of technology. Technology allows us to transcend our physicality, and yet it alienates us from the natural world and from each other. By bringing the focus back to nature, back to each other, through design we can encourage people to reconnect with their surroundings and to reconnect and celebrate the beauty of the sky, to sit with your friends and family and watch the sun set and the moon rise, and it could be anywhere. It could be in the city, in the country, in the desert, in the canyon. Our work is tuned to these types of moments.
Proceeds from Spirit of Place’s collector’s edition go to Oceana, which protects and restores the world’s oceans. Why Oceana?
We are excited about what Oceana is doing for the environment. The planet is predominantly covered with water, and we thought that donating our proceeds in this way would have a significant impact in trying to make the world a better place, in cleaning up the mess we have created through industrialization. It’s more important now than ever before to recalibrate our thinking about the planet and to help however we can.