The Miami-based architect, who heads Oppenheim Architecture + Design, initially made his reputation with for-sale multifamily projects that combine a sleek Modernism with the tropical (and hedonistic) atmosphere of their surroundings. While local developers were skeptical at first, the financial success of Oppenheim’s buildings proved that South Florida condos didn’t need to stick with a Mediterranean-Revival look to sell, and the city, and its skyline, haven’t been the same since.
Chad Oppenheim says his Ten Museum Park “has had a big impact [on the Miami skyline]; it has started people rethinking in terms of rezoning massive buildings.”

Now his firm—whose number of employees roughly matches Oppenheim’s age (mid-30’s)—has begun to branch out in terms of both building types (the hospitality side of his practice has three, billion-dollar hotel projects on its plate) and location (Las Vegas, Dubai).

Our interview with this Cornell grad (B. Arch, 1994) is broken into three sections: In Part I (below), Oppenheim talks about how his adopted home base has influenced his work—and how he, in turn, has significantly affected Miami’s design sensibility.

In Part II, he discusses in depth two of his most interesting pending projects: Cor, an intensely green mixed-use building that will rise 400 feet above Miami’s Design District; and the envelope-pushing Cube, whose final design will ultimately be determined by its buyers, who will be able to configure their own homes by connecting cubes horizontally, vertically or diagonally (with garden voids and even cantilevered living for the adventurous). 

Part III finds Oppenheim telling us how it was a banyan tree—and not Rem Koolhaas—that inspired a recent building design; discussing a recent trip to that new oasis of cool architecture, Dubai; opining on the benefits of having an equity stake in some projects; and revealing which architect has influenced him the most.  

Bryant Rousseau: Chad, you’re best known as an architect of condominium projects in Miami. How has the culture, the climate and the topography of that city infused your design philosophy and shaped your residential work?

Chad Oppenheim: We’re very contextually sensitive in all our work, and we accentuate the positive of any location, and Miami has a lot of positives: Look at the natural resources of light, tropical breezes, water, sky. All these natural elements, that are free materials to work with, are a tremendous influence. We want to let the architecture be submissive to the natural beauties that surround us.

I’ve always been fascinated with Miami. When I was a kid, I watched Miami Vice, and it showed so many interesting, playful, fun buildings, and I assumed there was an anything-goes mentality. So I originally moved here because I felt there would be a liberal attitude toward design; I had a notion there was a lack of architectural history here, more so than in other more established cites—and that would make it easier to push the envelope.

But when I arrived, I discovered that liberal mentality was actually very limited and applied only to minor pieces of architecture. The general, prevailing style was Neo-Traditionalist and Post-Modern.

We didn’t set out to change the city; there was no big objective or larger mission. But we knew we could do things differently, improve things, and little by little, we have tried to inject a more playful, warmer Modernism—doing open lobbies, rooftop gardens, big outdoor pools that capture breezes, creating places for enjoying the moment. By doing so, we gradually became more influential.

BR: And how has that influence manifested itself in the type of work now being done in Miami?

CO: How we influenced the market in a positive way was getting the public interested in cool, modern design and showing developers they can not only sell these projects, but sell them for more. Our success has been only driven by a project’s financial success; if we didn’t have that, we’d still see a lot of developers continuing to build in a Mediterranean-Revival style.

BR: Miami has undergone quite a cultural transformation in the last few years, becoming a genuine arts destination—a situation no one would have believed just 10 years ago. What role, if any, has architecture played in this cultural advance?

CO: It is playing a role now and it will become even more prominent. The majority of interesting architecture has been of a residential nature—appropriate since Florida in general, and Miami in particular, has always been about selling the dream of a new way of living. But what’s happening now is an awakening to architecture as something very important for the city.

The city is ready for civic-scale architecture. The donors behind these projects are more sophisticated now, and what is happening is a large influx of talent for civic projects: Herzog & de Meuron doing the new Miami Art Museum; Grimshaw designing the Miami Science Museum, Pelli’s Miami Performing Arts Center. Gehry’s [New World Symphony] concert hall in Miami Beach.

BR: One of your more celebrated built towers is Ten Museum Park. How do you assess its impact on the Miami skyline?

CO: People find it incredibly elegant, of graceful proportion, where a lot of the high-rises around it have been massive. It has a very delicate profile, is very small in its footprint and its vertical/girth relationship. I’m excited it has had a big impact; it has started people rethinking in terms of rezoning massive buildings.

BR: Your own work excluded, what’s the one building no visitor to Miami should miss?

CO: The Bacardi Building headquarters is incredibly elegant, with a Modernist [look combined with] a local flavor. And the Delano Hotel, as redone by Philippe Starck, delivers such a unique, powerful, experiential moment. The entire procession through this elemental space achieves maximum effect, enlightens the senses experientially. One of the projects we’re doing in Las Vegas is the new Delano Hotel, and one of the reasons we won [the commission], I think, is I have been so inspired by the original. It’s holy ground for me.

BR: Of all your 20 or so projects in Miami, what’s your personal favorite?

CO: The residence that we actually live in [Villa Allegra, see slideshow]. I designed it as a spec home and loved it too much to sell. It’s really the purest example of what we’re trying to accomplish in Miami.