Page C1.2 . 14 April 2010                     
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Peter Bohlin - AIA Gold Medal


Bohlin cofounded the firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1965. Educated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then Cranbrook Academy, Bohlin could have gone to work for either Eero Saarinen or Gunnar Birkerts, or gone to New York City, but he returned to Wilkes-Barre, his place of his upbringing, to practice. His father had been president of the pencil manufacturer Eberhard Faber — how appropriate for an architect (and Bohlin still draws using colored pencils)!

BCJ has since grown to 200 architects lead by 12 principals. Four additional offices are located in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Seattle, and none of the five is designated the headquarters.

Within each studio, there are no private offices, and the fact that Bohlin is president is not mentioned in the firm's publicity — reflective of the firm's collaborative rather than hierarchical way of doing business. Bohlin talks about an "interactive, balanced, more egalitarian, more collegiate" office organization, where the brilliance of all employees is nurtured by listening to everyone and "cycling staff through all types of projects so they can draw lessons." Among the more than 420 awards BCJ has received is the AIA Architecture Firm Award, in 1994.

In nominating Bohlin for the Gold Medal, Andrew L. Metter, FAIA, of Epstein/ Metter Studio praised him as an "original American architect" who is "not married to any one style." Metter, who collaborated with Bohlin on the design of the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and served with him on the AIA's Committee on Design, commended Bohlin for his sense of context, materials, and propriety.

In describing the visitor center at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Metter lauded the building's serenity, transparency, and "rigor of craft-appropriate materials."

Several other colleagues and clients of Bohlin's offered letters of support for the nomination. Quoting sentiments from those letters, James Timberlake, FAIA, of KieranTimberlake presented Bohlin's nomination to the AIA Board, saying, "He represents the quintessential American qualities of innovation and inventiveness, combined with pragmatism... Peter's work serves to mend, rather than to create a continuing cultural divide in modern architecture."

Timberlake continued: "Peter's work demonstrates incredible breath and depth, from conception through execution of the smallest detail. He designs for people, and his work is always humane and human scale. His work encompasses a broad spectrum of program, typology, site, construction methodology and client."

Bohlin also designs for sustainability, including 16 LEED-certified or -registered projects, and an additional five projects that he says were done to LEED criteria but not certified.

Homes, Stores, and Beyond

In the first of two telephone conversations, Peter Bohlin reluctantly listed some of his favorite projects. ("It is like saying who is my favorite child," protested the architect, now age 72.) They include Seattle City Hall, several stores for Apple Inc., and "six or eight small buildings that were particularly satisfying": the Forest House, done as a weekend house for his parents in Connecticut nearly 35 years ago; an unidentified Seattle residence; the Shelly Ridge Girl Scout Center in Philadelphia; Combs Point House in the Finger Lakes region of New York; and Seattle's Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center ("a very green building"). One project that he mentioned subsequently was the Grand Teton visitor center.

It is telling that, while Bohlin is proud of large, iconic buildings, such as those he has done for Apple, and other large buildings for other clients, he is especially attached to his residences — for in all his buildings, no matter what the size or use, he brings the human scale of his house designs.

He has the rare ability to design grand soaring spaces, such as the entrance to the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York, without ever intimidating the visitor. Compare that all-glass entrance to Pei's all-glass entrance to the Louvre, which is impressive, especially from a distance, but lacks the enticement of the Apple Store.

The Fifth Avenue store is an outstanding example of retail architecture as entertainment. Bohlin refers to it as "levitating" the visitors. He seeks to pull people in to see, experience, and buy the Apple products.

The store is also notable for how it enhances its built surroundings. At the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, the Apple Store stands in front of Edward Durell Stone and Emery Roth's bland 1968 General Motors Building, opposite the Plaza Hotel and diagonally across from a major entrance to Central Park.

South of the GM Building is some of Manhattan's most expensive retail, while north of it are elegant late-19th- and early-20th-century hotels and apartments. The 50-story, marble-clad GM Building, with its original sunken courtyard in front, had distracted from the older, more architecturally powerful buildings, and the sculpture and low walls and landscaping of Central Park.

The plaza was raised a few years earlier, but it was the 2006 Apple Store that turned the drab courtyard into a vibrant, swirling center of foot traffic.

Prior to the Fifth Avenue Store, Bohlin had taken an early-20th-century U.S. Post Office in the SoHo section of Manhattan and turned it into an Apple Store that glowed with natural light from the existing window openings (freed of multiple panes and muntins) and from a pyramidal skylight running from the front of the building to the rear. Another new Apple Store on Broadway, just north of Lincoln Center, opened in November 2009, with a glass front and curved glass ceiling, and flanking, recessed, metal-clad end walls. These Apple stores and the others in New York and around the world share familial traits of transparency and a slick, high-tech look, yet each one is unique.

Forest House and Mountain Center

The Forest House was described by James Timberlake as "a project I remember resonating among my fellow student colleagues who were channeling architectural styles, weekly (weakly). This house seemed to be above style and simple in origins. Imagine, if the house were removed that site would be left completely intact, an extremely sensitive approach to its intrusion upon nature."

Bohlin demonstrated this care for the natural setting some 35 years ago. Also notable is the house's steeply sloping roof with a virtual wall of glass and metal muntins on the tall wall. The extensive use of glass (now double- or triple-paned) and dramatic, jutting rooflines remains common to many of Bohlin's projects, whether they are governmental, academic, or for other uses.   >>>

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Located next to the General Motors Building (1968), the Apple Store Fifth Avenue occupies a subterranean space created when the tower's adjacent sunken plaza was raised to street level a few years earlier.
Photo: Nic Lehoux/ Courtesy Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Extra Large Image

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Floor plan sketch of Apple Store Fifth Avenue.
Image: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Extra Large Image

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The SoHo Apple Store (2002), also designed by Bohlin, is an adaptive reuse of a historic post office building in New York City.
Photo: Peter Aaron/ ESTO/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Elevated on concrete piers near West Cornwall, Connecticut, the Forest House (1975) was designed as a weekend retreat for Bohlin's parents.
Photo: Joseph Molitor/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Two-story glass walls open the living room of the Forest House to its sylvan surroundings.
Photo: Joseph Molitor/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image

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Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed the 201,000-square-foot (18,700-square-meter), LEED Gold-certified Seattle City Hall with Bassetti Architects.
Photo: Nic Lehoux/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The multistory lobby of the Seattle City Hall includes a stepped area that can serve as an indoor amphitheater.
Photo: Nic Lehoux/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image

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Daylight enters the council chambers of Seattle City Hall through high windows on either side of the space.
Photo: Nic Lehoux/ Courtesy BCJ Extra Large Image


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