Architects often toil away in obscurity for decades before earning the accolades they merit. It's all of our good fortune that Dwell on Design Featured Speaker Chad Oppenheim has made the transition from rising star to industry icon in a matter of a few years. He’s brought his contagious enthusiasm for radical sustainability to projects from Jordan to Switzerland, but it’s a project in his own backyard that put him on the map: COR, a concept for an ultra-sustainable skyscraper, captured the public’s imagination for what’s possible to accomplish in green building. We reached Oppenheim at his home in Miami, where he waxed poetic about the role of green architecture, the importance of place, and what he'll be talking about when he takes the Sustainability Stage at Dwell on Design Saturday, June 23rd.
This is not the first time you've worked with Dwell—we collaborated on the BMWi party at Art Basel/Design Miami this winter that took place in Herzog & de Meuron's amazing parking garage in Miami Beach.
We really took a step back and said we don’t want to design an event space and spend money investing in something that would then be torn down and thrown out. So we created this forest—really a forest in the sky—and then to make it even more interesting, we took those 500 trees and donated them back to the city through TREEmendous, an organization that is attempting to replenish the canopy in Miami. Now all the the trees are in the process of being planted in the city.
How do you manage to incorporate foliage so seamlessly into your work?
I’ve always loved photosynthesis, ever since I was a kid in biology class. Plants are these perfectly designed species that absorb light and water and turn it into nutrients. That sets the tone for what we’re really interested in. I call it “recreational architecture,” which has a double meaning: you can recreate and have fun, but also re-create and generate the environment. For example, developers often hire biologists to figure out which species they can remove from a jobsite. We hire them to figure out what species we can bring back.
Your COR tower concept turns its green features into sculptural, whimsical touches. Why was this an important idea?
Actually, we didn’t set out to adorn the building with green texture elements. We had the notion of a structural skin where we could make these circular cut-out patterns. Because of the analysis our engineers had done however, we also set out to utilize more wind and sun energy. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to integrate turbines into that circular area? We decided not to hide them, but to celebrate them in a functional way. We never anticipated that the tower would become a poster child for green architecture.
You’ve said before that sensitivity to place is very important to you. How do you gain that knowledge, working in countries all over the world?
We hope to do architecture that’s kind of eternally beautiful—you don’t know when it was built but it’s sensitive to the environment, and proportionate in scale. That comes from the context in which we’re building. We start with an analysis of the climate, then we look at all architecture that has ever existed in a particular place. We try to utilize the local materials, and find out why people there build, how they build, and then we learn from that.
What’s an example of where you learned from a place?
A building we did in the Philippines is wrapped with a sun shade of perforated metal that follows the pattern of the sun to offer optimal shading. I think in the last 50 to 60 years we’ve become too obsessed with technology to see the true ingenuity of design.
What will you be speaking about at Dwell on Design?
I’m going to talk about houses, and how they can enhance your life. I’ve always felt that. I’ve designed houses since I was seven years old. I’ve always thought about them as fulfilling people’s dreams and making people’s lives better.