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The Nature of Circumstance:

The Seeds of Our Architecture

Peter Bohlin

The Nature  of Circumstance:
By Peter Bohlin -

We believe in an architecture that springs from the nature of people, places, and the way we make things. …the nature of people - our senses, how we see, how we hear, how we smell, how we move, how we touch, our intellect and our emotions, our dreams, our memories, our past, how we interact with others, our institutions. …the nature of place, whether natural or man-made - the tilt and warp of the land, the changing climate, the sun and wind, rain and snow, its attitude, its spirit, the marks of man on a place, the realm of universities, a dense urban world or a landscape that reveals its geological past and vestiges of man’s hand. …the nature of making, of materials - stone, wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, fabric - each has its particular qualities. All materials have a kind of will - we are fascinated by the connection between the nature of materials, the places they quite naturally make and our use of these particular places. We are also fascinated by the special qualities of new materials, technologies and hybrids. With both intellect and intuition, we search for the nature of circumstance and ways to reveal the essence of all things. Buildings can tell us of the nature of their making and their place. They reveal the nature of us all. My beliefs have their roots in my childhood - the quality of changing light, the warmth of the sun, the breeze in a forest, the sound and smell of a stream. The child’s wood sand tool that I made as an undergraduate at Rensselaer speaks both visually and tactilely of its making and use. The textures of its various surfaces tell us of the tools used: band saw, lathe, and sander. It enables open-ended use. Searching for a more responsive, nuanced architecture, I studied primitive societies and how they responded to their particular circumstances such as macro and microclimates, available materials and food sources - human cultures that are intertwined with the extraordinary structures that spring from their circumstance. They had no choice. It is intriguing to consider the inevitable technical aspects of these places and the very personal societal refinements as well - enormous lessons for all of us. While a student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, I was able to do many design exercises that included studying the nature of walls and the buildings they form and how various faces of a building might differ with the arc of the sun. I also thought about revealing the magic and richness of the materials and elements with which we build. I looked at the connection between materials and the places they naturally make, and worked with materials such as clay to discover the shapes that resulted while rolled and pinched in my hands. I have always been intrigued by how places are revealed as we move from here to there - how a changing point of view can titillate and compel, how we are drawn from place to place. Our architecture is enriched by a fascination with the potency of beginnings and endings, whether of a journey or an object - the foot of a column, the end of a beam, or the edge of a wall that reveals its construction. At Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, we are interested in a variety of circumstances, in the emotions that all things evoke. For example, how they calm or trigger fear, how they remind us of other places, of our childhood, how they liberate us - the biomorphic qualities of many things. Are ducts great organs? Is the rounded ceiling over a space the belly of a sea creature or the beamed structure overhead the spine of a fish - the poignancy of being more than one thing at a time - and selectively revealing the nature of a place. We applied these lessons in the early ’70s when we designed a small summerhouse for my parents in northwestern Connecticut. Forest House is all about moving from here to there, about moving from a dark evergreen forest to a sunny deciduous forest, revealing the nature of the place. The path culminates in a tall space that seems to float in a forest of shimmering leaves and shadows. Rather than expressing fully the structure and construction details, we used common materials and selectively revealed the truths of the building - a highly intuitive exercise. We worked hard to make this house seem effortless. As Bohlin Cywinski Jackson has evolved, the circumstances in which we work have often become more complex and endlessly varied, and this is one of our great fascinations. Drawing on the intuition and intellect of colleagues as well as our clients and consultants, we search for the most satisfying response to each challenge. Every project is quite different, as we aim to listen to all of the cues at hand and respond to the distinct characteristics of each client and place. It is the inspiration we take from this diversity of voices and sources that distinguishes our approach and our work. The singular characteristics of a building will grow out of the nature of the client: how they see the world, the project we undertake together, and the site: its topography, the light, the air, and the history of a place. Insights from our work with smaller buildings carry over to larger projects. Attention to how people feel - buildings that inspire, are telling in detail, and have an ease about how spaces are used. We see this as humane modernism. Now with offices in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Wilkes-Barre, the range of our work has expanded, as have the ways in which we see architecture, not only because of the variety of places and clients, but because of the ways in which we use materials. We are able to use window systems that are more transparent and delicate; prefabricated systems that make extraordinary economical structures; traditional materials of concrete, steel, and wood, and hybrid materials made possible by new technologies such as CNC machining and carbon fiber. And we’ve discovered regional material such as metal shingles from rural Minnesota and amazing stone such as Vals quartzite from the Swiss Alps. We have also become increasingly interested in the details people touch - door handles, railings, stairs, as well as what people use as they move from here to there - how a door pivots or materials change. All of these possibilities can lead to poignant buildings and places. Of course, all aspects of architecture related to sustainability interest us greatly: passive and active solar solutions, shading and channeling light, geothermal systems, gathering and storing water, recycling materials, and touching the land lightly. Most of all, creating well-crafted buildings that people will love and care for over time. Our interests in the ambiguous links between past and present, the natural world and the man-made, continue in our present work. Ours is a process that requires a lot of listening, drawing, and interaction, not only in the initial concept but also throughout the shaping of a building. Subtleties, relationships, and ambiances may not emerge in words until a drawing is there on paper. While computers are an essential part of our world, the pencil is an extension of the brain and the hand and is an especially satisfying tool for coaxing out the nuances that make memorable architecture. Since we began our firm 52 years ago, we have grown more collaborative as extraordinary architects have thrived and evolved within the shared beliefs and values of our practice. We prefer working together in conversation, thinking, and drawing, inspired by an open and collegial environment. We have developed a design culture based in both the intuitive and the rigorous, the dream and the technical. We do not have a rigid hierarchy, nor do we specialize in one building type. We believe it is far richer to work on a broad range of projects together, ever open to new realities and possibilities, honing our intuition, our nimble skills and listening with all of our senses. It is the way to make a more nuanced and powerful architecture that can be both fresh and timeless.



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