By Andrew Caruso
Peter Bohlin, FAIA, founding principal of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and recipient of the 2010 Gold Medal of The American Institute of Architects, joined the National Building Museum for the Spotlight on Design lecture series. Humble yet decisive, innovative yet respectful of the value of tradition, Bohlin has produced a substantial body of timeless works. National Building Museum Online contributor Andrew Caruso met with Bohlin to discuss his approach to design.
Andrew Caruso: Peter, you have an uncanny ability to provide a setting for every conversation. Can you set the stage for our readers today?
Peter Bohlin: Right now I’m sitting in our dining room, which is somewhat like a porch, looking through a grove of birches. And as I look west through the birch trees to the dark evergreens behind, they’re lit so wonderfully. It’s noon and the sun is hanging to the left, lighting up the side of all these trunks. We have a field behind the house that I think of as going to Canada, even if it doesn’t; it just seems to go that far. One of the great pleasures for an architect is how you shape these touching places such that they resonate in their circumstances; they tell you of their special nature. Many of the old timers were very good at it, whether they talked about it or not.
Andrew Caruso: It’s unusual to think of one of America’s premier architectural practices getting its start in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Tell us about this beginning.
Peter Bohlin: Well, I started with a very solid technical grounding at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was somewhat of an anomaly there, sorting out my beliefs regarding a humane modernism. Enrolling in Cranbrook Academy of Art for graduate school was a radically different, liberating circumstance for me. We really had no particular projects; we chose our own. At that time, there was no dogma.
After seven years of school, I really wanted to be an architect. You know, when you are young, you’re anxious to get at it. I thought I could save a few years if I designed a house for my parents who lived near Wilkes-Barre. Nine years later, my partner, Dick Powell, and I completed a summer house for my mom and dad in northwest Connecticut where I lived as a child. It was on the cover of the New York Times Home section and Paul Goldberger wrote the article. That’s where we first met. We’re about the same vintage.
Andrew Caruso: Many other firms of your size and caliber have avoided residential work completely or have taken it on exclusively. BCJ, however, has managed to find a unique balance.
Peter Bohlin: Right. We’ve never given up the houses, as you know. We’re doing about 8-10 houses a year, and not just large houses. We like to do the small, modest ones as well. We like tight budgets. We thrive on these challenges at all scales, both large and small, simple and complex.
Andrew Caruso: How has pursuing this residential work fueled the rest of your design practice?
Peter Bohlin: The houses are very much about architecture. Smaller buildings often give the opportunity to do things more directly with people, and particular people at that. But all our work shares an interest in the threads between individual groups of people, the special nature of each place—both manmade and natural—and the technology of making a useful, sustainable environment. All our work shares this search. It is so interesting to be at the nexus of people, technology, and art.
Andrew Caruso: You’ve been practicing for 45 years at a tremendous rate of accomplishment. How has your role changed relative to your design process?
Peter Bohlin: Well, at the beginning there were just two of us. My business partner was the manager and I was the design person, but those things flip back and forth over time. Now with 180 people, I still take a very strong role, but one that is much more interactive. We now have 12 principals and many other exceptional architects in five places stretching across much of the world.
My day-to-day life is about bouncing through many projects with other cohorts in the practice, and we interact. I see my role as one of an enabler, looking to be very much involved, to have insights yet constantly mentoring as well. I think it’s a hybrid circumstance for me, and it will go on until I go senile, which I don’t plan to do. [Laughs]
Now, technology has become omnipresent. I still do my thinking with a pencil all the way through, but others will parallel that on the computer. The challenge is that younger architects are computer-based, and they think differently. It’s a very interesting discussion. And yet, working in all of these ways with others, we’re not about to give up our pencils.
Andrew Caruso: What’s ironic is that you’ve brought such life to the physical spaces of some of the world’s most pivotal technology companies (Apple, Pixar), and yet you don’t use email.
Peter Bohlin: Well, on Monday I get my first iPad. [Laughs]
Andrew Caruso: You have spoken about the role of intuition in design, of creating design that is almost inevitable.
Peter Bohlin: “Almost” is the key word. Seemingly inevitable is another way of saying it.
Andrew Caruso: How do you learn that type of intuition?
Peter Bohlin: Intuition sounds like such mush, but it’s not. Intellect and intuition are always working together. As an architect, you spend your life searching for the web of interconnections—and you may not get them all—but you begin to see how people feel, how people react, how things are changing, and how they’re not. It is about doing intelligent buildings that have a connection to people, places, and how we make things—to a sustainable society. There are subtleties about how you see things that do not relate at all to the rules of design school or current dogma. Beyond a certain point, beyond all of the rules, it’s a matter of just being good at it.
Andrew Caruso: You recently published Nature of Circumstance. What is the relationship of writing to your design process?
Peter Bohlin: Our books are critical to us. They plant our feet, our thoughts, and ideas in the world of architecture. As with exhibits and lectures, they force us to sort out our thoughts a little more clearly. Writing and drawing are crucial in that regard, forcing you to think even if with just a soft pencil.
Now, the electronic world is dominating printed work, and that will continue. It’s a sadness, but a reality. The world continues to change—it’s fascinating. It requires curiosity and nimbleness.
Andrew Caruso: Do you see the use of video as a design medium to be a return to storytelling in architecture?
Peter Bohlin: Yes, I don’t use that term, but of course we do tell stories through our work. Our buildings are about places and people. Subtle issues, like grabbing a handrail, can tell you a story if the architect gets it right. I think we are constantly realizing that humans are as emotional as they are rational, maybe more so. But, emotional does not mean without value. Whether or not we wish to acknowledge it, the emotional story of architecture will shape its experience. You might as well get it right and do it effectively, to value both intellectual rigor and intuition.
Andrew Caruso: In what ways is BCJ an open-ended practice, as you have previously described?
Peter Bohlin: I made a point earlier about the nature of our practice: the fact that we’re not headquartered anywhere. I see our practice as a collaborative effort (although by now you know me well enough to know that collaboration doesn’t mean you turn into a wimp). Our practice is collegial. There are often too many conflicts in other firms, and we do not have that. We value our interaction.
Andrew Caruso: Your website still carries a prominent image of one of your very first projects: the Forest House for your parents in Connecticut. Forty years later this house is still relevant to your practice. What did you learn from this experience that you still carry with you?
Peter Bohlin: Well, on one hand, I worked very hard on that project not to seem to have worked too hard. There is often a risk of being too single-minded or too hard-driving. Some of the most powerful buildings are gentle, yet they are telling and quite emotionally charged. The Forest House was about these qualities. It is intelligent, graceful, and emotionally very touching. It becomes a little loose as it threads its way into the forest at the point where dark evergreens give way to deciduous forest. It touches the land lightly. It responded to the sun and the breezes. It was made of modest materials. When I was a child, we lived elsewhere on that property. Those evergreens were small, and now they’re monstrous. [Laughs] Makes you wish we could live a few more lives, you know?
Andrew Caruso: Coincidentally, many years ago, I introduced you for a lecture during my time as an architecture student. What I didn’t know at the time was how profoundly your lecture would impact the future of my practice.
Peter Bohlin: We all need that. I look back and there were similar moments. My time as a student at [William] Lescaze’s office was unbelievably important because of a kind architect who worked there. Seeing early [Paul] Rudolph buildings in Florida was terribly important. When I was at RPI they tried to make us more civilized, so we painted regularly. David Smith came by one day and said some very kind things that have stayed with me all my life. The most amazing lecture I’ve seen was [by] Bucky Fuller.
Andrew Caruso: During that lecture, you challenged us to explore how architecture reveals itself.
Peter Bohlin: You used the word “storytelling,” and I used the word “reveal.” Architecture reveals itself in so many ways: in where it is, how it is, and how it’s used. Some people say we are all about details—the bits and pieces. I think that’s [bull]. If you’re going to be a good architect, I would say you need to think about “the bits,” quite a bit. But the large thoughts and how they are interconnected is also important. All of those things have a role in the way architecture is revealed. There are, perhaps, infinite ways to do that. Ultimately, I work with emotion and intellect, and if you spend a lifetime, you get better at it. It’s like being a child. It’s a kind of play.
Andrew Caruso: Do you see your work now as joyful play?
Peter Bohlin: Much of it, though some is tough. If it isn’t play, why are you doing it? If you had ten lives, you might as well blow one, but we don’t. Can you plan your life? [Laughs] Well, you can sort of position yourself. It isn’t all accidental. But the idea of planning it, well, I don’t know. See the humor in that.