In this interview with Can Ziyal, Chad Oppenheim, founder of Oppenheim Architecture + Design, talks about architecture, their projects, his way of thinking on how to approach and solve problems, and his fascination with nature and its purity.
Can Ziyal: Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
Chad Oppenheim: My name is Chad Oppenheim. I am an architect and we have offices in Miami, New York, and Basel, Switzerland.
CZ: How many people are working in your 3 offices?
CO: We have 40 people in total.
CZ: Would you like to tell us about the house you grew up in?
CO: We had a couple of houses. When I was born my parents lived in a very small apartment. I do not think I even had a bedroom. Then they moved to the suburbs of New Jersey and I lived in a house that was basically in a community where there were 5 house models you could pick one from. I grew up in that kind of environment and when I was about seven, my parents decided to build our dream home. So I worked with the architect every night with my parents on the kitchen table with tracing paper, basically conceived of this dream house of our family to get built. And my parents live there today. It was very inspiring and that is how I became interested in architecture.
CZ: What made you become an architect? You pretty much answered that in the previous question.
CO: Before that I was drawing cars. I was fascinated with cars and I thought I was going to be an automotive designer. Then once I started drawing houses, dreaming up how we can live better and thought about how our lives can be enhanced by the house. I was just fascinated.
Funny because all of my friends were reading Sports Illustrated and I would always read Architectural Digest. Looking at all these pictures of beautiful homes.
CZ: How did growing up in New Jersey influence you?
CO: It was a very safe and nurturing environment but fortunately my parents took us traveling so we were able to explore. I actually appreciate where I grew up more today, compared to when I lived there, in terms of the beauty of the tranquil environment. We have spent a lot of time in New York City. Every weekend we would drive up there and hang up in the Village. Soho was very edgy at the time before it became a shopping mall. 80’s, late 80’s and the early 90’s. That was very influential as well for me. Traveling has made a very large impact on my experiences.
CZ: What is architecture to you? Does architecture only consist of buildings?
CO: I think architecture might just consist of buildings but what we really like to do is to craft the experience. Part of that is the building but it is the engagement of all of the senses. We like to create an atmosphere and an entire experience. So that is how we design. We design the experience. And part of that experience is architecture and part of that is landscape, garden. The way you engage with nature, the sounds and the feelings, the smells, even the taste. So that is our kind of connection with what we experience architecture. That is just not the building itself but the entire ecosystem around it.
CZ: Who were your biggest influences in architecture?
CO: They have sort of changed and evolved over time. A quick synopsis, I guess, originally I was very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright. For no other reason, my mother bought me a calendar and it had all these pictures of his drawings and I was just amazed and more books and so forth. And then right about the time I was going to university, I saw an Architectural Digest: Richard Meier House, the Douglas House, shores of Lake Michigan. That blew my mind.
When I was in Cornell studying, I got inspired by Alvaro Siza. We did some traveling in Spain and Portugal. We met him many many years ago. Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo. The idea that at the time was a lot of deconstructivist things going on and I began to realize the very simple and thoughtful design. You do not have to do something outlandish to make an experience pleasurable. And then you know, Zumpthor, Herzog & De Meuron, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, a lot of people that I have seen lecture at Cornell were very inspiring.
And now it is kind of overwhelming how there is architecture there is available for one to kind of engage with at a very topical level. I have been more interested in artists like Richard Serra, Michael Heitzer, James Turrell. In the last couple of years I have been heading to a place where there is architecture without architects. Looking at places where it was not about publishing architecture getting people excited about, but where it was just about solving basic human needs and doing it with the materials in place. I am kind of looking more primitive these days to find solutions in this very technological world. Going against the grain in some ways.
CZ: When you think about the word architecture, is there a building or an architect that comes to your mind instantly?
CO: The Pyramids of Gyza is one of these amazing structures that kind of get about thinking of architecture. It is just interesting that the way you experience them is very different than what might have been before. Also the Pantheon in Rome. One of the most influencing things that shaped my architecture is traveling and living all over the world such as living in Japan, Israel, New Mexico, Italy and Spain.
CZ: Is there an iconic project that you say you would have done it differently?
CO: I have been fascinated by Jean Nouvel’s Louvre in Abu Dhabi for many years. I do not know if I would have done it differently but I felt incredibly inspired about it. It encompasses a lot of the things I have always been thinking about, villages and understanding the past. In 50’s and 60’s people were so rebellious against the past, they began to throw out the good things. Let’s do something new, let’s revolt against the old and the international style. Anything old was bad. I find that there is so much that I can learn from the past. Architecture is evolving for thousands of years and there is no need for an abrupt distinction between past and newer architecture like the Fountainhead, Howard Roark vs Peter Keating. We can learn from proportion, scale, materiality, precession. All these kinds of elemental things that are forgotten. I like to consider these things.
CZ: When did you start your own office?
CO: We started around 1999. I was working at Arquitectonica before. I took leave to study for my exams. I got a couple of little projects to support myself while taking the exams. From there I started to take bigger projects little by little.
CZ: Which project of yours has changed your career?
CO: I guess I am still waiting for that. We are always hopeful that there will be one that gets you, but I would say that Ten Museum Park was a big project. When we finished the projects the market collapsed. Thankfully it was the last successful project in Miami at that time. It was a pivotal project. We did a villa in Los Angeles for movie director Michael Bay. It was also a pivotal project.
CZ: Which comes to first for you? Form or function?
CO: Feeling. It is all about the feeling. Form follows feeling. That being said, functionality for us is the backbone. We solve the functionality. How do you experience and engage with it.
CZ: Less is more or more is more?
CO: I would say, do more with less. We like to reduce things to their essence. Similar to reduction in cooking, we keep taking away so the flavor is more powerful. We try to find the essential without any extraneous things. It is not minimalism but it is essentialism.
CZ: Mies van der Rohe or Oscar Niemeyer?
CO: It is kind of interesting. I would say it is a hybrid of both. The rigor of Mies and with the romanticism of Niemeyer. I feel a great deal of affinity to Louis Kahn in many ways. Power, drama, elemental and forms. Salk Institute is influential and I just went to Kimble this summer. I found a similar ideology. Of course, there is Frank Lloyd Wright.
Often times I try not to be inspired. You think you created something amazing and five years later you realize that someone had done it in 1954. There was a very interesting exhibit at MOMA two years ago about Latin American Architecture. They had competition from 1967 and you see all these towers such as twisting and all sorts of shapes that people look at today and think that they are so innovative.
CZ: If you had a chance to choose the time period you were born on, would you choose a different period to design in?
CO: Interesting. Obviously I am happy now. We are building and it is a very interesting time. I feel like the Internet is so interesting. Strangely enough, in 1994, my thesis project at Cornell was all about the information space, digital abilities that allow us to transcend our physical abilities.
We can travel with the speed of light with our image. Everyone is engaging socially, instantaneously, disconnecting from their own environments. Our work is all about reconnecting you, regrounding you, refocusing you on nature. There are a lot of great things where we are and where we are heading but there are also concerns and warnings. I feel like I am going in the other direction. Trying to be on the phone less, engage less.
I was thinking the other day, what if I was working 20 years ago. What would I do without the Internet? Any student of architecture can upload an amazing project on the Internet now. It is great, it allows young firms to do great things. It is just interesting that there is such an abundance of information and imagery overload. Often times I want to get away from it, try not to be influenced which is kind of hard.
CZ: Unlike many architects who try to design in a particular way, using the same materials, colors or geometrical forms, you tend to experiment more with your style. What led you to this solution?
CO: The word style always scares me. I like to think that there is an overall philosophy of what we are trying to achieve that oftentimes means celebrating, capturing the spirit of the place. We actually just came out with a book called “Spirit of Place”. As the architecture and the world have become more homogenized, I believe that we really celebrate and capture the spirit of a particular place.
We recently completed our first project in New Jersey, which is pretty exciting for me. Being from New Jersey, I am always an outsider. I watched a lot of Miami Vice growing up and I thought it was a cool place. I came to Miami to hang out for a couple of years to go somewhere else, ended up staying, but coming from an outside perspective is always interesting. We work all around the world, we go there, study, research, try to understand the culture, the history of the building, the philosophy, the materials, the way the buildings were done before technology. We try to find that knowledge. That is why our buildings are so site-specific. They are built with the land rather than on the land. We do not change our style but the place changes what we do. Sometimes clients tell us, “Oh we loved what you did in LA or Miami” but that is not what that place is. It is very different.
Oftentimes it is like archaeology, in a way. Trying to uncover the truth in the story. We never know what we are doing until we engage. We do not try to be different for no reason, but we try to understand the people and the place and find what is appropriate.
CZ: If you have to use one word to express your style what would it be? The word comes to my mind is limitless.
CO: Limitless, I like that one. Essential, connected. The idea of disconnecting and then connecting. The idea of really connecting to the nature and seeing the beauty that surrounds us that we take for granted. I, myself do it. Architecture really tries to capture the possibilities of the greatest pleasure you can create. I believe that architecture should give you an incredible feeling. We are trying to craft paradise. We think of how can we create the most pleasurable environment in a specific place.
CZ: Would you like to talk about your recent project Ayla Golf Club and Resort where the building beautifully and effortlessly blend with the surrounding landscape?
CO: That has been a really great project. That project started many years before. We had won a competition for the same client in Wadi Rum, which was a resort project. We worked on that for one or two years and then the project got shut down during the Arab Spring. Our client has worked for 8 years to come to an agreement with the Bedouin tribes and the government.
After that, the same client started to work on a big project on the Red Sea in Aqaba and they asked us to create, they used the word iconic building. I find the word "iconic" scary. We went to the site and saw all the sand dunes. That is it, it is done, we do not want to do anything else. Because we like to reference the site and the environment, we want it to be silent in that landscape. This idea of silent monumentality is something that we are very interested in. How do you create incredible drama, connectivity to the place but doing it a way that is silent. Doing it in a way that indiscernible that we really love. We basically did an occupiable dune. We wanted a very low-tech build. We used local and limited skilled workers. It is all about capturing the view, breezes, mitigating the climate with a very delicate shell. If you look at it from different angles, it disappears. It is an ongoing experience.
CZ: Would you like to briefly explain how the exterior shell of the Muttenz Water Treatment plan has been constructed? How did you come up with the idea of using clay?
CO: That is a very interesting project as well. We were commissioned to consider the shell around this very technical object that is the first of its kind in the world. It is a very high tech water treatment system that takes the water from the river Rhein and converts it into drinking water for the town of Muttenz and its surroundings in the Basel countryside.
We have challenges with arbitrariness. Things that are arbitrary disturb us. We basically had this box that we needed to do something with and the budget was non-existent. What could we do to create that something makes sense? We said let’s not shape it for whimsy, let’s shape it for efficiency. We started computer simulation for sucking the air out of the box, sort of compressing it. That kind of brought us somewhere. At that point, there was an artist in Switzerland we saw, who did a work like that. He takes stainless steel boxes and sucks the air out of them. He did not want to collaborate with us.
So we went back and asked ourselves what could we do and which materials should we use. We started to think about what were the first vessels that held water. We found clay vessels of thousands of years old. Beat, who runs the office in Switzerland, my former classmate from Cornell, said, “There is a clay area up above the office in the hillside.” We took some clay from the site and I sculpted to this shape that began to evolve to the computer simulation. We brought it back to tectonic and handcrafted shape.
CZ: My personal favorite Oppenheim project is Marina + Beach Towers. What is the status of the project? Do you think it would be a good fit for Miami as well? Who did the structure of the project?
CO: That was a competition in Dubai for the Marina Beach District. We were given a masterplan of six towers. It was on a man-made peninsula that you drive through, marina on one side and a beach on the other side.
We said, if we do six towers, a lot of the units will end up looking into each other. What if we think about a way that we give every unit the best view? That is the logic for us. Not how they look like but how they operate and feel. In Miami, you always get a premium for ocean view vs non-ocean view or marina view vs back view. Sometimes it is a 100 percent premium. So we thought if all the units have a view, the sales price will justify the additional cost of the build.
We brought the building up from the marina and the beach so the scale of the building will be lower. There is a road to pass through, underneath this building. I did not think at the time but afterwards I thought about what inspired me. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the contemporary hotel in Disney World. It blew my mind when I went there as a kid. I was very inspired by the trips we made to Mexico. The pyramids and the hotel we stayed at with the shape of a pyramid. Also the movies I saw such as Star Wars. James Bond movies where you see the villains with incredible houses. One man in Thailand in The Man with the Golden Gun had a hideout in the limestone cliffs. Those are the things that inspired me.
I did not realize my inspiration until someone from Disney told me that it is a very cool project, we should do it in Disney World like the new contemporary hotel. It has been going on for many years. They have not done it yet. We are hoping that one day we will be doing it.
The elevators were inclinators which we have seen before in Las Vegas, pyramid building. We knew it was feasible. Elevators were only 25 percent premium compared to the regular ones. But the elevators were only 5 percent of the total. The structure had the main role. When we started doing small projects the engineers did not want to work with us because they wanted to work on large projects where they can make more money with similar effort.
Around the time of the Marina Beach project I was in my early thirties and I told myself I have to find the best engineer. I read an article about a guy who has done a lot of high rises in New York and I called him up. I did not think he would call me back but he did. His name was Ysrael A. Seinuk, a professor from Cooper Union. He had done a tremendous amount of high rises. He even did work for Donald Trump. We ended up working together. It was very inspiring. We do not think about the structure after, for me, the building and the structure are the same things. We are not engineers like Calatrava but we are trying to create the perfect system of building structure experience. I always believe buildings look better under construction. There is a purity in the skeleton and the shell. We worked with Ysrael Seinuk over many projects, coming up with ideas such as skin becoming structure. We always pushed structure and architecture together.
In that project, you start to build and build and it connects. Like putting books on top of each other until it does not top over and then you connect it. That is how that building evolved. I have a video of him explaining the structure. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2010. He was a great guy.
CZ: What is your goal in architecture? Do you design to be remembered in the future? If so how do you want to be remembered?
CO: Often times you think about how many building you want to do, what type of buildings, will the building be there, how long will they be there. It is an interesting question. What satisfaction do you get from being in the skyline? We have a lot of buildings that we have designed for here and elsewhere in the world that unfortunately never got built. If I am on the water, I take my paddleboard, look around and say we would have around 15 buildings on the skyline, if the 2008 world financial crisis did not hit. Now they are not there and many of them are replaced by Arquitectonica buildings.
And then you ask yourself would that have made me happier. I guess, I would prefer having fewer and more meaningful projects than tremendous amounts of projects. I am fortunate that I get to be involved in the design of almost everything in the office. The most satisfying part is to work with this great team and to uncover the potential of a project. When you hit that “You got it” moment, that is the most exciting moment. There is something beautiful about that moment of inception.
When you are done after a stressful project, you tell yourself I cannot believe we did it. The feeling of relief especially when it looks amazing. There is a great feeling there but I feel like the moment of solution is the best like an archaeologist finding something as I mentioned before.
We never even put our names on buildings. We do not have plaques on them. We probably should do it, now that I think about it. I do not think architects do that anymore.
It would be nice to have an impact on different cities and to be remembered great. I saw a talk about “Write your own obituary.” I thought that was an interesting thing. What do you want your obituary to say? You start thinking about it, you say I have not done anything. I better do something meaningful.
It is a delicate balance between doing a water treatment plant, a luxury house and we would love to do other things as well. We have done a low-cost housing project but unfortunately, our client had problems and the project never got built. We would love to do more projects that are helpful to the world, environmentally and socially.
CZ: What is your biggest motivation in life? What is the main reason for you to leave your bed and go to work in the mornings?
CO: I would say it is the excitement of doing a project. The moment that you solve the problem. I am always looking for that buzz. For me, that is the thing that gets me going.
Spending time with my family. My greatest creation is my kids, they are my best friends. My wife and I are a tight-knit unit. I am not with them because of responsibility, I am with them because I enjoy the time together. I take them traveling a lot. It is something I really enjoy.
CZ: How long have you been teaching? And how is teaching affecting your work career?
CO: I have taught at FIU, Cornell, Harvard GSD and lastly at the University of Miami. Different experiences. I love teaching. I love engaging with the students, when they are engaging. Sometimes students do not care. You do it for that joy and passion and when someone does not have that, it is kind of frustrating. A couple of students do overwhelming work and blow you away and it overweighs the other group. It has been really great.
Teaching up at GSD for two years has been really inspiring. Just being there and commercing yourself with the environment. I flew back and forth every week. It was a lot of fun. Some people in the class really blew us away with their ideas and projects.
CZ: What would you like to suggest for young architects and architecture students?
CO: Being passionate. That is what I look for in myself and people who work around me. I really want to see that in students. Loving what you do and doing whatever it takes to fulfill your passion. It all has to be very personal. Do not try to be someone else.
I am also searching for myself, every day I ask myself that question. What is it that we really want to do? What are we trying to find, pursue? It is like dust in the wind. Opportunities come and do not come. Every day, you do not know where you are going to end up. Which is exciting and has its challenges as well. You have 40 people and you have to fulfill their needs.
CZ: What is your favorite city? If you had a chance to live in another city what would it be?
CO: It is kind of two cities. They are kind of a tie. I would say Rome. Layers and layers and layers of time. It is phenomenal. You can go to a restaurant a there could be something from 3000 years ago. No one even cares about it. The scale and the proportion of these ancient buildings are incredible. Of course the food, dolce vita, the Italian way of life. Everywhere you turn there is an incredible masterpiece. Art, sculpture, painting, piazza, public space. I have not had the pleasure of traveling to Turkey, but as a country, I think Italy has the most incredible geology, geography. Volcanoes, craters, lakes, mountains, alps, the coastline. The abundance of diversity and beauty.
Another two cities I really love are Tokyo and Kyoto. Kyoto is amazing, sort of like Florence or Rome of Japan. Tokyo is so out there. The people, craft, everything. You go to a food hall and someone spends 10 mins to package your sandwich, like an origami.
I also very much love Bali. I always say I learned a lot more on my honeymoon than I almost learned in my five years of school. Just this connection to the place. Luckily and finally we are doing a hotel in Bali. There has been a wait for that for 16 years. It is more of a landscape than a building.
CZ: What are some of the opportunities and challenges your office is facing now?
Every day is an opportunity and a challenge. It is sort of finding your path. Hopefully, the world allows it to happen. It is always an interesting journey. You try to focus on certain methodologies and thoughts, somehow it does not necessarily happen and 5 years later it happens. It is finding opportunities to do things that are meaningful to us. Things operate in complete randomness. Sort of that trilogy of books I recently read called “The Three Body Problem” a Chinese science fiction novel. This civilization on another planet has three suns. And these three suns create complete randomness. You never know when it is going to be night or day, winter or summer. It is kind of like that for us. We are trying to figure out if there is a pattern to this randomness that is always happening. I do not think there is. You just have to surf it out. I have been trying to surf a lot lately in the physical world but also mentally.