In Conversation: Chad Oppenheim

How the Miami-based architect has been shaking up the skyline of South Florida

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.

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).

Bryant Rousseau spoke with Chad Oppenheim about how his adopted home base has influenced his work—and how he, in turn, has significantly affected Miami's design sensibility.

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

The residence that we actually live in [Villa Allegra]. 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.

Let’s talk about Cor, your high-profile green tower in the design district. Your press release describes this building as “revolutionary … the building of the future.” What are the green features that really set this project apart?

It’s a building where the architecture is fully integrated with the ecological ideologies. For example, with the wind turbines on the roof, it looks like a green building—whereas so many other sustainable projects just look like generic buildings.

The architectural and the ecological also fuse together in the building’s skin. A hyper-efficient exoskeleton shell simultaneously provides building structure, thermal mass for insulation, shading for natural cooling, enclosure for terraces, armatures for the wind turbines, and plazas on the ground level.

And the shifting in the patterns of the circular openings is intentional: It’s much more efficient to have diagonal gridding rather than vertical.

Rising 22 stories over the design district in Miami, Florida, Cube promotes its occupants to design their own domain with the possibility of connecting multiple cube modules vertically, horizontally, and diagonally in addition to creating double height volumes, garden voids, and cantilevered living environments.

The skin is also somewhat suggestive of a living, breathing creature…

It is organic in that there is no greater ecological entity than the human body, which has this organic perfection in dealing with climate. Our skin is so amazingly complex, and this skin is complex in its structure, its ecology, its urban gesture. It was not the intent, but it does somehow does evoke an organic life with its fluidity.

Walk me through your conversations with developers about green design. Is it an expected component of the design today, or do you still have to sell them on green?

We start with explaining why a green approach should be taken and then work to find an angle for the particular project.

With Cor, for example, we said [to the developer], “Because of how this building looks, you’ll get a tremendous amount of free exposure. So instead of spending $1 million in marketing, let’s put that money into the technology of the wind turbines, the solar generation of hot water, photovoltaics.”

We thought that, being in a [condo] saturated marketplace, this would give us a unique selling proposition for the project, one that would generate a lot of energy and excitement, get more people passionate about it, supporting it, investing in it.

As architects, it is our responsibility to lead the way, but it ultimately takes great clients to follow an idea through. No one wants to pollute their environment or do something bad. Everyone wants to do green, but it all boils down to cost. There are still big clients who are not ready for it; they’re saying they’ll make room for solar panels, but in the future.

Normally, the 5-10 percent cost increase that a green building would require wouldn’t be an issue. But with the prices for basic materials costing so much more—100 percent more in some cases—there’s a real sensitivity to adding any extra costs. If we hadn’t seen this spike in material prices, I think everyone would be more excited about doing green right now.

User-generated content is all the rage right now online, with sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and MySpace transforming the Web. You have a “new frontier” type of project, Cube, that is perhaps somewhat analogous: It’s user-generated design. Let me read to you what you’ve said about Cube: It “creates the possibility for ultimate volumetric flexibility ... [It] promotes its occupants to design vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. … [It’s ] true interactive architecture.” It’s an overused word, but maybe it’s fair to say Cube is quite a radical concept, allowing buyers, to some extent, to shape the final form of the building—and taking some of the control away from the architect. What was its original inspiration?

The original inspiration was my thesis project at Cornell, an idea of creating a vertical neighborhood, with people building and defining their own domains similar to how they do so in horizontal developments of single-family houses.

But that being said, this project is not an opportunity to put something learned in school into the work of my practice. Whenever we are confronted with a project, we think first of the structural systems to get efficiency and clarity. Before we design, it’s not here is the pretty picture; it’s here is the most efficient and pure and elemental way to design a project in context of the program.

So in examining this project, and the complex configurations of the site, I began having conversations with my engineer. And this building was made possible because of the amazing Yrsael Seinuk, one of the greatest living engineers.

In discussions I had with him, it was, “What if we do the structural system on the outside, a gridded, diagonal bracing, so we don’t need sheer walls to come down internally?” And it was this analysis of how to deal with the structure on the outside, how do we simplify the building, how do we make it more economical, that generated the ideas that led to this steel-structure concept: People buy cubes of space and connect them in whatever way fits their domestic requirements, with all the mechanical systems tapped from the central core.

Buyers can configure the cubes in many ways. You can buy two cubes and place them horizontally, buy three and go with two horizontal, one vertical, et cetera. The idea being you can start to define your own domain; we want people to have the flexibility to dream.

As architects, we’re always creating infrastructure, but what happens inside is up to the occupant. I love that personalization, and this project [enables] it at the massive scale of a high-rise building where the buyers have flexibility and control over the final look of the project. There is a definite appeal to me in letting this randomness affect the architecture.

In addition to designing Ten Museum, you’re one of its developers as well. From a purely design perspective, what are the pros and cons of having an equity stake in a building?

When I see a phenomenal opportunity, a location that hasn’t been tapped, and I can put together a proposal for a project that takes advantage of this, it’s like an actor creating his own vehicle—like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon writing Good Will Hunting so they could star in it.

[Having an equity stake] gives us a better opportunity to create great architecture as it gives us a certain control over the project.  It has also helped us become more sensitive architects to the development realities faced by all our clients. It has added a level of knowledge in terms of business acumen. We’re always trying to push the architecture, but we’re always cognizant of the realities of building. Having a foot in both world helps us with clients because they are investing their money with us need and they need to make sure everything we do fits within the model of good business: We want to achieve the highest level of design within realistic parameters.

You’ve just recently returned from Dubai, where it seems every big-name architect on the planet is working on a major project. What are you working on here—and what are the challenges of working in this environment?

Every shape and form, every architectural idea, is being explored here. Everyone is torquing, splitting, shifting. It’s a challenging environment in that people are willing to do whatever it takes to bring attention to the market, so the question is how do you do something that will get recognized, and generate excitement, without being so outlandish that, if it’s a residential project, it still will sell?

We’re working on a few proposals here, taking the lessons we’ve learned in Miami about sustainable architecture, and architecture sensitive to its environmental context, with the goal of doing something timeless, not trendy. I was talking with a Dubai local when I was there, and he said “You know how you look at certain buildings and say, ‘That’s so 1980s?’ I think people are going to look at all these twisting towers in the future, and say, ‘That’s so 2000.” We, on the other hand, want to do something that could have been done a long time ago or many years from now.

Some observers have remarked on the similarities between your Miami Dade College/College Station proposal and Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing.

That kills me. The last thing you want to do as an architect is feel inspired by something more than you should have. But actually, the [College Station] project comes from a three-month study to rearticulate the program in a simple and elegant way. It took months and months to come up with a program that worked for this incredibly complex project which has a hotel, fitness club, spa, garden, banquet facility, rental apartments, condos, a museum, two theaters, retail cafes and houses the schools of architecture, music, and dance.

So the goal of creating optimized space for this project, in essence, is completely different from CCTV, which is a looping tower. We’re not doing the looping concept, but an extruded volume, the elements not needed carved away, so what’s left is an optimized floorplan.

The inspiration for the building is actually the banyan tree, which has at its base this incredible roots structure that merges to support a broad canopy at the top. That’s where we came up with how to create wide top floors and an incredibly packed bottom and then also have openness in the middle, so that these middle floors could get lots of light—which you can’t have with a 100,000-square-foot floorplate.

So initially, we were troubled internally with the comparison, and we asked ourselves, “Does this feel a little too close?” And the answer was no; it’s actually completely different in concept. And whenever I see the CCTV project, I always think of Peter Eisenman [laughs].

Which architect has had the most influence on your career?

Alvaro Siza: He has the sensibility to create something in a way that it appears very simple, but it’s complex in that it accomplishes many things with minimal gesture. And what we try to do is Romantic Minimalism, an Essentialism, where everything of essence is left, but nothing else. What you try to do is find some sincerity, some clarity, the essence of a project where nothing could be removed or the vision would collapse—it’s about the purity of what it needs to be, nothing more and nothing else. That’s where the power of a building is most exuded.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.