At his intimate studio in Miami, Jacob Brillhart leads a team that’s interested in architecture on an emotional level. As such, the office begins each project by considering how space and atmosphere in their designs will influence their inhabitants. This spiritual approach to his craft has won Brillhart numerous accolades and utmost respect from his peers, as well as commissions all over the world that advocate the tranquil union of environment and structure.
Your design philosophy states that your firm is interested in “exploring the spatial and atmospheric qualities in architecture that move or affect one emotionally.” In what way?
As our office has grown, we’ve become less distracted by form and more interested in the “chemistry” of space, meaning how different materials make us feel, what history, memory, and patina bring to a place, the importance of light, darkness, and shadow, the clarity of structure, and so on.
That’s quite ambitious. How do you ensure that’s done consistently?
We have started cataloging what we call the ingredients that make up this chemistry of space. These are common elements mined out of Shaker buildings, vernacular buildings of the South, and contemporary architectural spaces that we like alongside qualities found in early American paintings. Admittedly, this is a paradoxical form of research. As Mark Wigley said, “atmosphere is what precisely evades analysis.” However, we believe a conscious awareness of these elements will inevitably help thicken our design work.
Looking at the firm’s work, it’s impossible not to notice the importance you place on creating places within nature, as if they’ve grown there. Has that always been your approach?
We have always wanted our buildings to appear lightweight and as if they are resting light on the land. However, an understanding of the interconnection between the building and the landscape really manifested itself while we were working on Brillhart House, which is essentially a glass house. I think after having lived in it, and in the Brillhut, a small cabin my wife and I built for ourselves in the Bahamas, both with glass and screens on three sides, the inseparability of building and landscape has rooted itself into our psyches and frames the way in which we approach all our work.
Do you still own those properties?
We sold Brillhart House some years ago, but Brillhut is still very much in our possession.
Going back to what you said, one thing is wanting your buildings to appear “as if they are resting light on the land,” but another is accomplishing that. How do you go about achieving that symbiosis between nature and architecture?
Each of our projects is designed in direct relationship with and in response to the existing site and its myriad natural conditions—topology, soil, existing landscape, and more—and to its larger context, the history of the site or area, its climate, vernacular building traditions and materials, and neighboring architectural styles. How we engage those opportunities is what truly anchors the project to its surroundings.
How carefully do you consider light?
It is one of the most important ingredients shaping or defining the experiential and atmospheric quality of a space, and we are always thinking of ways to bring natural light in with the orientation of the building on a site and by designing narrow building footprints.
What’s your approach to materials?
We are fundamentally experimental, not only in terms of materials but also construction assemblies. We currently have over 14 projects, all of which explore different structural systems and different materials or building skins, and the combinations of which are all solutions born out of the site’s demands, client’s wants, and so on.
How do you want your firm to evolve?
I want to stay small, continue doing high-quality projects, and remain hands-on.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t an architect?
I’d be a painter making travel drawings and working on small projects for ourselves.
Text by Luis R. Rigual
Photos courtesy of Brillhart Architecture