Minimalism in Miami
Chad Oppenheim’s designs seek the perfect balance between art and economy. With profound respect for the environment, the celebrated architect creates designs that are both beautiful and functional. CORPUS takes a look around Miami where his career began.
Even if the reduced rectilinearity of his designs might at first suggest otherwise, nature is one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Chad Oppenheim. His sensitivity to the environment as a designer and, in the strict sense, to sustainability pervades the work and aspirations of the architect. Together with his team at Oppenheim Architecture + Design, the 44-year-old has realized numerous award-winning projects around the world since setting up his office in 1999: from Miami to Manila, from a luxury resort to a humble pavilion. Naturalness always plays its part – underscored by his use of materials that manifest their effect not only on the design level but also atmospherically.
With his personal architectural philosophy, Oppenheim has also been making his mark for years on the appearance of the city in which he lives. Despite the diversity of the projects, his work in Miami is in essence always characteristic: Environmental awareness and joie de vivre are treated not as mutually exclusive but complementary.
The 50-floor residential and commercial building Ten Museum Park, which houses exclusive apartments as well as office and retail space, stands out on the city’s skyline with Oppenheim’s typical clarity of form and proportion as well as with its height. Its roughly 180 meters make climatically adapted design indispensable: The building reflects the sun and thus the heat while also withstanding wind speeds of up to 225 km/h. On a much smaller scale but no less sophisticated conceptually is the Orchid House Gateway Pavilion donated by Oppenheim that marks the entrance to Simpson Park Hammock, one of the last eco-systems of its kind in southern Florida. The selected structure thus embodies a symbiotic relationship between architecture and nature: “Unlike construction projects downtown, we are letting nature shape building structures here,” Oppenheim explains.
These days, developers are exploring the furthest reaches of architecture and living. In my practice, I stress the fact that we have to identify that balance between reality and dreams.
Not a blank drawing board, but an existing house was the starting point for the ideas for the Villa Allegra. Graced with local materials like cypress wood and coral rock, this is where the architect lives today with his wife and children. Oppenheim has extended the building and redrawn the layout so that the boundaries between indoors and outdoors become blurred – a concept made for the tropical climate. Like his home, the architect’s very first project is also located in Miami Beach. The apartment house Ilona named after his wife is noted for its trenchant use of materials and the subtle abstraction of its Art Deco surroundings. While Oppenheim remains rooted in Miami, his projects communicate his philosophy all over the world. Be it in the concept for a resort in the desert landscape of Jordan or the planning for a tree museum in Switzerland: With his eye for the setting, he has long demonstrated that sustainability can go hand in glove with comfort and joie de vivre. It’s not for nothing that he resides in the Villa Allegra, or “Happy House”.
Oppenheim Architecture + Design has some 40 employees at three offices in Miami, New York and Basel. The projects of Chad Oppenheim and his team have received over 60 awards. Their portfolio runs from private homes and apartment houses to office buildings, hotels and resorts in 25 countries.
Having worked all over the world from bustling city centres to the most remote areas, Chad Oppenheim’s projects are connected by an underlying philosophy as well as his admiration and respect for the beauty of nature. To reconnect people with their habitat through architecture is the ultimate goal of his designs.
The celebrated architect talks to CORPUS about nature as his inspiration, his thoughts on the materials of the future and why his projects sometimes are supposed to be almost invisible.
We are the most connected species that has ever lived on the planet, with our phones, our tablets – our technology. But the virtual connection made us lose touch to the physical world.
CORPUS: In your work, sustainability seems to be a very important topic. Would you say it is your main focus?
CHAD OPPENHEIM: Actually, the most important thing for me is nature. Planning projects is not just about sustainable practice. Of course, that is included, but it is about more than that. Admiration of nature is where our work starts – it is about celebrating the things we take for granted, like sunrises and sunsets, for instance. These are the things we are trying to capture and to reconnect us with the world around us. This connection highlights how architecture is linked to us being humans. We are the most connected species that has ever lived on the planet, with our phones, our tablets – our technology. But the virtual connection made us lose touch to the physical world. Through smart and sensitive design we are trying to go in the other direction and to reconnect people with their habitat.
CORPUS: To what extent is it possible to involve nature in your planning?
CHAD OPPENHEIM: When I was in 8th grade, I learned something I just remembered a couple of years ago: A typical project is built on the land. What we are trying to do in our work is to build with the land instead. What may sound profound is how architecture and all design can get us back in touch with our planet in the hope that people will admire and preserve it. The desire to control nature has to be changed to the idea of reconnecting with it. Sustainability is more a financial and numeric approach – it is not easy, but just a part of that.
CORPUS: With your idea of planning and construction, you must have favorite materials. Let’s say you are allowed to dream: Is there a material you would like the industry to come up with?
CHAD OPPENHEIM: We have a tendency to use old wood if possible, but working with it made us realize that we all need replacement products for wood. I would wish from the industry to create materials that are easily extracted and very doable, easy to work with. Also very fascinating for me are recycled or upcycled materials as well as technologies that limit waste in construction, as you can see with concrete: when forming concrete, afterwards you have to throw away the wood that forms that concrete. It is important to work on construction technologies as well as on materials.
CORPUS: What are your thoughts on the materials of tomorrow?
CHAD OPPENHEIM: Actually I have been looking a lot into the past when there was architecture without architects, when people were focusing on solving problems and providing shelter instead of celebrating architecture. Knowledge about how indigenous architecture worked and how people used to live in their habitat before technology allowed them to alter it can provide us with lessons for living in the future. We are looking for solutions that sometimes already exist – for me, the advent of air conditioning is a really good and more recent example. Before, people tried to create protection from the sun – they were using a lot more ingenuity and thought than technology. But with air conditioning, everything became a glass box. What we can learn from that about architecture and about materials is visible on older buildings: They were designed to mitigate and adapt to the climate, with non-technological ways. I think there is going to be a shift: making things very location specific and making them a part of the place rather than importing wood or stone from other places.
CORPUS: You’ve realized many impressive projects in totally different settings. Would you say that your creations have something in common – and how do they differ?
CHAD OPPENHEIM: Working in urban centers of course is something else than working in very remote areas. But I do see an underlying philosophy bringing it together, which is to create pleasure and the most wonderful experience for people. For me that means seeing the outdoors, the nature. For a new project in downtown Miami we were able to work with a big piece of land, but the client needed to provide a large program to pay for that land. So we decided to create the entire piece of land in the sky – by creating the roof as a garden, as a place of light. Working in very remote areas often means that we are trying to hide ourselves, since we do not want to dominate nature. In this case we are trying to make these places inhabitable but also to make our projects invisible. If we are successful as architects it is not about the architecture itself but the way that it could allow you to see the beauty of nature – to be more intoned with the world.
CORPUS: Thank you, Mr. Oppenheim, for this interview.
Biography in brief
Chad Oppenheim is a Miami-based architect whose work has been praised for its ability to transform the prosaic into the poetic. Through passion and sensitivity towards man and nature, Oppenheim creates monumental yet silent architecture that elicits a site’s inherent power. A graduate of Cornell University and a fellow of the AIA, 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 at many scales: from large-scale urban architecture, hotels and resorts, to private residences, interiors and furnishings. The international practice has received over 60 awards and distinctions, including the AIA’s highest distinction, the Silver Medal, and has been featured in numerous publications around the world. Oppenheim currently resides in Miami Beach with his wife and muse, Ilona and their two children.