Tomorrow night, Nisi Berryman of NIBA Home is hosting a book signing for Four Florida Moderns and on May 11, Archivia Books will host us inside the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. It’s an exciting time of getting the word out about the book. My other “baby” is the memoir I’m writing about my experiences in the mission field, which I’m revealing post-by-post on my blog The Road to Promise. My first experiences were in Costa Rica, and I thought this could be a good opportunity to connect the two projects with this excerpt from Four Florida Moderns in which Chad Oppenheim talks about how he designs architecture in such a lush natural setting as this Central American country. The project—San Silencio—is illustrated with renderings his team did during the design process, for which they won a Florida/Carribbean AIA Honor & Design Award. I hope you enjoy Chad’s sensual take on creating elemental architecture
RBD: You have remarked about a push/pull you experience between the built and the natural world. How does this inform your creative process?
CO: I guess it depends on where I’m working. When I’m designing a project in a potent natural environment, I want to respect that environment as much as possible. I’m always in awe of the beauty of nature so I feel that it’s difficult to actually create something more beautiful than nature. I like to let the natural surroundings infuse our projects and become the star of the show. For instance, with San Silencio in Costa Rica, the idea was to have the architecture blend seamlessly with nature, to disrupt nature as little as possible by minimizing the mass and the experience of the architecture. In a sense, we’re letting the architecture frame the natural world, which I believe is why people want to go to Costa Rica. Our work is to unlock the power and the beauty of a particular site. This concept could obviously be transformed into an urban setting as well, but I think it’s more potent in a natural setting of great drama.
When I was designing San Silencio, I sat on this cliff overlooking the jungle and it was like a dream. I thought to myself, I don’t want to build anything: I just want to sit here and enjoy. I’m the architect who doesn’t want to build, so I’ve always tried to build as little as possible and to do the minimum to achieve the maximum. But I’m also a romantic, so the natural projects are about the free elements—the trees, the sky, the water. For another project in the Turks and Caicos Islands, we orientated the village similar to the way ancient civilizations would have worked with the movement of celestial bodies. I think this is important because we have become somewhat removed from the natural world with all of the technology we have in our lives. For this project, we are letting the natural environment create orientations and dictate where we are placing buildings. This is similar to how the ancient art of geomancy or Asian principles would dictate how to locate a project. In a natural setting, this is one of the challenges—how do you locate architecture.
We try to work with the natural forces like the movement of the sun and the moon as we try to capitalize on the beauty surrounding the buildings. In this sense, the natural world actually becomes one of the materials that we work with. There are physical materials but there are also metaphysical and ethereal materials, such as the sky, the light, the weather, the reflections and the greenery—all those things to me are my main ingredients for a project set in nature. I believe the architecture is there only to allow one to appreciate these elements.
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I, for one, truly appreciate the fact that Chad feels so passionate about nature. So few architects consider the elemental to this extent. And on a side note, it just so happens that Costa Rica just won more honors in the relaxation and spa destinations category in TripAdvisor’s 2010 Traveler’s Choice Awards than any other Central and South American country. Congrats Costa Rica and happy roaming, everyone!