Unlike recent Gold Medalists, Peter Bohlin is not a lone prodigy; his contribution is inseparable from the firm he founded 45 years ago. His work lacks grandiosity, favoring instead a light touch, a Modernism mellowed by emotion. From the start, his designs have flowed from the circumstances of each project and his attempts to be environmentally responsible.
Peter Q. Bohlin, FAIA, describes himself as a “soft Modernist,” explaining, “I favor a more humane and emotionally nuanced Modernism, but without sacrificing intellectual rigor.” James Timberlake, FAIA, told the AIA board of directors in support of Bohlin’s Gold Medal candidacy, “His is not the work of grandiose egotism, or of vanity, but an ethically intelligent architecture of constructive logic that springs from the nature of circumstance.”
Unlike other recent Gold Medalists — Murcutt, Piano, Barnes, Predock, Calatrava, Mockbee, Ando, Graves — often regarded as lone prodigies, Bohlin’s contribution is inextricably linked with that of his practice, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), winner of the 1994 AIA Firm Award. With offices in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; and Seattle, the 175-person practice has won more than 420 design awards for projects ranging from private houses to urban libraries, commercial buildings, and civic centers. Bohlin, 72, is identified as design principal on more than half of the firm’s projects and tends, more than his four partners or the firm’s seven principals, to “be a nomad,” as he puts it, traveling from office to office, as needed. “But it’s not a dictatorship,“ he insists. “We work in a collegial manner, by persuasion, enabling each other, driving each other, and getting better insights because of our interactions.”
With each project, Bohlin says, BCJ seeks to “broaden the means,” convinced that hybrids, satisfying two or more requirements, trump one-note solutions; that designs benefit from addressing perceived impediments; and that working at small and large scales at the same time is good for both types of buildings. For Bohlin, intuition is as important as intellect and, regardless of the commission, “the challenge is always the same,” he says, “to succeed in sensing what is unique and appropriate to each specific place, and understanding how people will live or work there. Then you have to realize those needs in a way that fascinates, inspires, and works.”
Bohlin’s search for a Modernism that “gets at the fundamentals,” as he says, began while he was a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he developed a Lou Kahn—like attitude toward materials. At Cranbrook, where he studied from 1959 to ‘61, Bohlin was deeply influenced by Eero Saarinen’s quest to amplify Modernism. In 1965, with a newly minted license and not yet 30, he launched his practice in Wilkes-Barre with Richard Powell, who served as managing partner. The firm would undergo several name changes before becoming BCJ in 1991.
From the start, Bohlin viewed sustainable design as not only the right thing to do but also as an opportunity to make richer, more persuasive architecture. His 1976 Forest House for his parents, in West Cornwall, Connecticut — a narrow, green-stained wood structure that hovers on piers above the forest floor — exemplifies this. “If the house were removed, the site would be left completely intact, an extremely sensitive approach to its intrusion upon nature,” Timberlake pointed out to the AIA directors.
The Forest House exhibits other characteristics that would make later appearances in BCJ’s mature work. There is the emphasis on “getting from here to there,” says Bohlin. Often meandering and marked by surprises, circulation is, for him and his team, as important as form in revealing the essence of a place. At Forest House, the approach twists toward a light-filled interior. There is an attempt to make an emotive place with simple means. And there is a convincing sense that the design is almost inevitable. “I was thinking of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, who made it all look easy; that’s a goal of ours,” Bohlin explains.
Bohlin expanded his sustainable-design bona fides at the Shelly Ridge Girl Scout Center (1982) in eastern Pennsylvania, where he worked closely with colleague Frank Grauman — now a partner. At a time when energy-efficient buildings tended to look strictly utilitarian, Bohlin tried to make Shelly Ridge fun. It is a simple timber-framed structure with brick infill that incorporates daylighting schemes and employs an uncharacteristically thin south-facing Trombe wall to collect and distribute solar heat.
In the late 1980s, a client asked Bohlin to design a house in upstate New York in the manner of the 19th-century great Adirondack camps. Instead of deeming the commission as unworthy of a Modernist architect, Bohlin accepted the challenge and created the Adirondack Retreat using the great camps vocabulary of timbers and boulders to broaden his design lexicon. Later, in 1996, Bohlin completed the Ledge House in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, where he abandoned rustic forms but employed boulders for the foundation and timbers for the superstructure.
Bohlin applied some of the same language to his Environmental Education Center (2005) in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania (a 2008 AIA Top Ten Green Project and a 2009 Green Good Design winner), and the Grand Teton Discovery and Visitor Center (2007) in Wyoming. Both projects are precisely sited wood-and-stone structures that “articulate the true nature of materials,” writes Tom Kundig, FAIA, in Bohlin Cywinski Jackson: The Nature of Circumstance (Rizzoli 2010). The centers are “of nature — not in it, above it, or instead of it,” Timberlake told the AIA trustees.
In the late 1990s, just as Bohlin and his partners were becoming concerned about being typecast as “very good wood-and-stone architects,” BCJ won two public commissions in Seattle. The firm had opened an office in the city in 1997 when working, in a joint venture with Cutler Anderson Architects, on Bill and Melinda Gates’s 65,000-square-foot compound in Bellevue, Washington. At Seattle’s City Hall (2003) and the Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center (2005), Bohlin and his team concerned themselves with “how people discover and move through a building, how places are revealed, how people interact and touch things, and with a Modernism that carries more emotion,” Bohlin says. Transparent walls at City Hall, a LEED Gold building, allude to the concept of government openness and transform the lobby into an indoor town square. “Seattle has never seen such a grand and elegant expression of civic life in a built form,” wrote Mark Hinshaw in Landscape Architecture magazine. With the Ballard Library (another 2009 Green Good Design winner), which expresses the nautical history of its neighborhood, the architects stepped the building back from the street and extended a broad roof over the sidewalk, creating a front porch where people can gather.
Bohlin and BCJ evaded typecasting yet again with their five retail outlets for Apple Inc. Manhattan’s Apple Fifth Avenue store (2006) is a mesmerizing precision-edged glass cube free of structural steel that marries technology and art, much as Apple Inc. does with its product lines. From the glazed entrance pavilion, which fronts the visually pedestrian General Motors building, a glass stair that spirals around a transparent elevator tube lures customers down to an open sales floor. The project poignantly demonstrates how Bohlin searches for the “inevitable solution that coordinates and magnifies all the conflicting voices of program, place, materials, and poetry,” in the words of James Cutler, FAIA.
Bohlin and his partners have been preparing for the future of their practice by, among other things, appointing three new principals over the past three years. “I don’t want to dominate or impose my will,” Bohlin says. “I don’t have a vision for the future. It’s up to [our successors]. Setting a good example and searching is a good idea, and I want to make sure we’re open-minded, brilliant, and see the nuance in things.”
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