The Visceralist

Combining a sensitivity to site 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.

There is still snow on the ground, and a cold wind blows off the dark blue waters of New York’s Seneca Lake, but inside the lake house of Kim and Wendell Weeks, it is warm and sunny. You can see the lake from almost any seat at the long maple dining table: choppy waves to the south, framed by a stand of trees and a chunky concrete inglenook; and, to the north, the house’s dock and a boxlike, wood-sided boathouse in the distance. The Combs Point House is long and lean, meandering back from the water into a glen. A boardwalk connects the house to two more structures in the glen, a one-room office and a two-bedroom guesthouse. All three are sided in cedar, but the house sloughs off solidity as it moves toward the lake: by the end, it is essentially a porch, half indoors, half outdoors, as the roof, its full length supported by twinned glue-laminated beams, rises up to gain a few more hours of sun.

“The site is so touching,” says Peter Bohlin, the house’s architect, using a favorite word in his idiosyncratic architectural vocabulary. “The magic moment is when you move from the ravine to the delta and you look sideways at the lake. It is a visceral moment.” That’s where he put the table, turning the traditional home center, the kitchen, into something more dynamic.

The Weekses, who live in Corning, New York, came to Bohlin with clear ideas about what they wanted: a house for many generations, with a big, open living-dining area for gathering but enough separate spaces for their teenage children to have privacy. “He came to the property on several occasions just to wander around with us, to figure out where the sun was in the winter, what path the house should take through the gorge, where you wanted the dining table to be so that everyone can see the water,” Kim Weeks says. “That provided everything he needed to come up with the design. It was almost perfect the first time.”

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Bohlin, who will receive the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal this June, has been practicing architecture since 1965, operating his 174-person firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, out of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. 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.

I ask Bohlin 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.”

Bohlin doesn’t use a computer or e-mail. The breast pocket of his blue-and-white-plaid shirt is stuffed with a large flip phone, a case for his glasses, and a handful of soft Itoya pencils. (All his partners draw too.) It is with these tools and a large monthly planner that he runs the practice. He spends half of each month on the road, checking in physically with the offices in Seattle and San Francisco and visiting buildings under construction. He selects certain projects to get deeply involved in while serving as a sort of visiting critic on others. On the car ride back from Seneca Lake, he calls several BCJ partners in turn, checking on Apple stores in Georgetown, London, and Paris; a Uniqlo store in Shanghai; and a client who needs prodding to proceed with a house. Bohlin gets straight to the point without notes or drawings in front of him.

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.

“My husband’s stepfather is also an architect and lives in the same town as Peter,” Kim Weeks says. “We ended up sitting around the table at our old lake house, just talking and really enjoying each other’s company. It wasn’t until after we had already decided to move forward that we had any idea who he was. I didn’t even know how to spell his name!”

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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