Dream maker

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2008 - 3:19 PM

Architect Peter Bohlin builds people and place into his designs.


At Farrar house, a 25-meter lap pool is cantilevered over a mountain stream. The sides are floor-to-ceiling windows, with an acrylic panel at the end. Stainless-steel panels on the ceiling reflect water, trees and the stream below, creating shimmering reflections.

Editor's Note: Due to an illness Peter Bohlin will not be the keynote speaker but his work will be presented.

Peter Bohlin and his firm designed the luminous all-glass Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City and the sprawling stone-and-timber Grand Teton Discovery and Visitor Center in Wyoming, and co-designed the home of one of the world's wealthiest men: Bill Gates.

Although the 66,000-square-foot Gates house in Medina, Wash., can accommodate 150 people for a sit-down dinner, Bohlin maintains that he has built an international business by cultivating architecture that honors people and place.

"My own pleasure is doing things that touch people emotionally," said Bohlin, who will speak at the annual "Good Design Makes a Difference" event at the International Market Square in Minneapolis on March 25.

While the Gates house is larger than many department stores, it doesn't dominate the landscape the way many trophy houses do these days, explained Bohlin. Much of it is underground, some sections have sod roofs and it was built with reclaimed Douglas fir, which creates a visual and historical connection to forests that once covered the Pacific Coast area.

The house has other sustainable features, as well, including a re-created wetland that has become a spawning ground for fish. Most of the garage is underground to downplay the presence of cars. And, despite the size of the house, it doesn't feel overwhelming, Bohlin said.

That starts with the acoustics, which get quieter as you move deeper into the house to make you forget just how substantial the compound really is. And it continues with high-tech options that are "omnipresent, but invisible." If a phone rings, for example, you're not going to hear it throughout the house, because sensors tell the phone to ring only in rooms where people are present.

Honoring materials

Materials that connect the house and its occupants to the site are an essential element of architecture that is both functional and beautiful, according to Bohlin. And it starts with the basics.

"You can read the past in a stone," he said. "And that's fascinating and beautiful."

Even man-made materials can have similar attributes, he said. Glass, for example, "can be absolutely magical," he said.

Nowhere is the use of glass more inspired than in the Bohlin-designed Farrar house in the mountains of Park City, Utah. There's a dramatic greenhouse where the owner can enjoy her orchids while also enjoying the panoramic mountain landscape outside.

There's also a 25-meter lap pool that's cantilevered over a rushing mountain stream. The sides are floor-to-ceiling windows, and there's an acrylic panel at the end that wraps from the bottom of the pool to the ceiling, giving the illusion that you can literally swim straight into the landscape. Stainless-steel panels on the ceiling reflect water, trees and the stream below, creating a shimmering reflection that elevates exercise from a mundane task into a spiritual pursuit.

"You're emotionally transported," he said. "It's magic, and I love to do magic."

Practical applications

Of course, not everyone can afford their own lap pool or even an architect. But Bohlin says that homeowners and builders can do simple things that make a big impact.

"I would change the way one moves through a house," he said, "just to titillate and to enable people to feel better and richer and more lively."

That means aligning windows with the best views, carefully siting the house and filling it with light. He suggests that homeowners imagine what they'll see when they're lying in bed, and to think carefully about whether they can see the sunrise or sunset. And he encourages them to honor the past.

"I think one's childhood feelings, maybe more than direct memories, affect us all," he said. "You develop an empathy for the place, and that goes back to your childhood and how you hunkered down and how you imagined things."

Bohlin, for example, remembers an idyllic New England childhood along the banks of ditches that ran through his community. "I'd lie on the banks and imagine that newts were great salmon swimming in the stream. And how do you feel about the sound of frogs? I want to cry when I hear them."

His own house in rural Pennsylvania is spare in detail, but rich in history. He lives in two Civil War-era buildings, a church that was a stop on the Underground Railroad and another that was a cottage built by an escaped slave.

Bohlin designed a stone walkway and a pond to connect those unique structures and transform them into a cohesive whole. Around them, low, dry-laid stone walls and a grove of birch trees help create privacy and a courtyard, which functions as a "special outdoor room." Inside, the rooms were reconfigured to make the best use of natural light.

"It's a dreamy little place that's very calm," he said. "It has crooked ceilings and floors, but it is just a lovely place and I like being there."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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  • The Bohlin-designed all-glass Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City was completed in 2006. He finds that man-made materials have their own appeal: Glass “can be absolutely magical,” he said.


    "Good Design Makes a Difference," a Home of the Month event sponsored by the Star Tribune and the AIA Minnesota.

    When: 5 to 7 p.m. March 25

    Where: Suite 54, International Market Square, 275 Market St., Minneapolis.

    Admission: $15.

    Register: www.aia-mn.org/hotm/register.cfm or 612-338-6763.


    Keynote speaker: Due to an illness Peter Bohlin will not be the keynote speaker but his work will be presented.

    Other speakers: Tom Fisher, professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, will talk about how design can help us adapt to climate change; and Sarah Nettleton, AIA, will speak on "the luxury of enough."

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