Q&A with Chad Oppenheim

Tra Publishing sits with Chad Oppenheim, celebrated architect and author of Spirit of Place, discussing his inspirations and connecting with our surroundings.

Chad Oppenheim is a Miami-based architect whose work has been praised for its ability to transform the prosaic into the poetic. A graduate of Cornell University and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Oppenheim has lectured widely and has taught at various architecture schools, including most recently at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. In 1999, he founded Oppenheim Architecture (Miami, Basel, New York), which has garnered global recognition attention for large scale urban architecture, hotels and resorts, private residences, interiors, and furnishings.

What was your goal with this book? 

Spirit of Place celebrates the beauty of the places that we’re creating. It’s our intent in our work to make our projects seamlessly blend into the environment to achieve an incredible, almost silent monumentality. In Spirit of Place we’re able to share this philosophy, the idea of architecture becoming one with its surroundings.

In this era of information overload, where do you go for inspiration?

As an architect, I am tremendously inspired by nature and by art, especially from the work of Richard Serra, James Turrell, and Michael Heizer—the way that these artists work with nature and the site to create incredible 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, being silent in the landscape but capturing incredible drama and monumentality within.

Can you describe your take on the concept of "spirit of place" and how it drives your creative process?

Like archeologists, we begin to explore, investigate, 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 and figure out how to create the most extraordinary experience in that particular place.

You include a variety of sites and locations in Spirit of Place? What was your selection process?

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 just 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.

Why are proceeds from Spirit of Place going to Oceana?

We are really excited about what they are doing for the environment. The planet is predominantly covered with water, and we thought that this would make the biggest impact in trying to make the world a better place, cleaning up the mess that we have created through industrialization. It’s even more important now today to really help recalibrate our thinking about the planet.

What are the challenges of incorporating natural resources and elements, light, air, water, sky, vegetation, local resource materials into your designs?

We like to work with all 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, 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? 

By bringing the focus back to nature, back to each other, 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 so tuned to these types of moments.