Ever since he opened his Miami studio in 1999, Chad Oppenheim has made it a point to approach architecture as reverentially as a poet would. His design philosophy is guided by the principle that landmark structures must be highly sensitive to their context and climate. That commitment has won him more than 90 awards from top institutions and built a portfolio of projects that push the limits of creativity without sacrificing environmental integrity. oppenoffice.com
FD: A great statement that speaks to your design philosophy is in your book, Spirit of Place: “We prefer to construct our buildings with the land, where architecture recedes and becomes a frame to celebrate the surrounding nature.” Can you expand on that?
Oppenheim: I’ve always strived to show that architecture is more than just designing buildings—it’s a feeling, a feeling of place, of community, and, most importantly, a feeling of preserving the surrounding areas that provide all the elements we need to live.
What was your “aha moment” when it came to context and climate regarding architecture?
I think my learning and inspiration came from my time in New Mexico, predominantly looking at the cliff dwellings of the ancient Native Americans who once inhabited the place, and how they built them with the materials on site. The tribes were not interested in architecture or prestige, but rather they were building in a truthful and humble way out of the materials that were onsite, and they did so in a very striking and elemental style. This notion of architecture without architects is something that I find interesting.
You’ve said you approach your profession as an archeologist early on and that unlocks the vision for any project. In what way?
Archeologists work to study history through the excavation of sites and analysis of ancient artifacts and physical remains. To craft our designs, there first needs to be an understanding of the location, environment, and terrain. It’s through that deep dive that we can really uncover where the design of a project will go.
Are native materials important to you?
Frank Lloyd Wright always spoke about organic architecture, and it took me years to finally understand what that meant. This idea of how the building and the land can become one is very important, and they are two parts of a whole. We always aim to utilize local materials whenever possible.
What’s the one project you’ve yet to tackle?
I’d love to do a ski resort or something on the mountains with spectacular views. I also have this dream of doing something spectacular in the Everglades or Big Cypress, like a floating resort in the most incredible ecology.
What’s next for your firm?
We hope to continue working on the types of projects that bring forth our philosophy of the union between man and nature, and to create incredible moments for people to enjoy.
Text by Luis R. Rigual
Photos courtesy of Oppenheim Architecture