Architect Charles Stinson has plenty of reasons to celebrate. He recently landed a big commission in Dubai, where he's designing a series of seaside villas and a 20,000-square-foot house, and he has projects underway in Washington and Costa Rica. Closer to home, he's the subject of a new book by local writer Camille LeFevre.
That book, "Charles R. Stinson Architects: Compositions in Nature" (Images Publishing, $78), showcases more than 50 projects designed by Stinson's Twin Cities-based firm.
His style is unmistakable. He's designed dozens of flat-roofed trophy houses for the wealthy and well-known, who have embraced the clean, modern lines that have become Stinson's trademark. Some of his best-known houses, which can be seen along the Minneapolis parkways and in some of the suburbs' toniest subdivisions, have sleek horizontal roof lines that seem to float above walls of windows. These designs are a stark contrast to the traditional architecture that's popular here in the Midwest and are highly reminiscent of the Prairie School movement. That's no accident. Stinson is a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs merged with rather than competed with their surroundings.
We talked with Stinson about the book, working in Dubai and the architects who inspire him.
Q What was your goal with this book?
A From the beginning, it was to explain the joy of the process and that there is really a special joy in doing a house. It was also a celebration of all these clients. Every client is a hero. They believe in you to help make these dreams come true.
Q You've worked with several high-profile clients around the world. Do your clients get involved in the design process?
A We want it to be a collaboration -- we become the filter.
Q What's it like to be a filter?
A It's powerful. You have to have a belief in the invisible to do this because it's a long time before you see anything. It's really quite an amazing process. Building a home can be hugely an expression of these clients and what they believe in and how they think they can live.
Q The many projects in your book all have an easy-to-identify style. How would you describe it?
A I would say compositional. I think that's it. And generally a lot of it is modern. The book subtitle, "Compositions in Nature" is about having a sense of nature and about the light and where views are and where the sun rises and sets and where it is in all the seasons. And it's about having a humanistic scale, having individual elements define space. I think it's important that we connect to nature. With the materials we have today, we can do that. It's a balance between having a sense of shelter and having a sense of release.
Q You just got back from Dubai, where you were asked to come up with seven designs for seaside villas that are to be built along the waterfront of a man-made island. What was that experience like?
A They have the best architects in the world there and expect things to happen really, really fast. And the designs have to be respectful of their culture.
Q How did your firm come to the attention of the Saudi royals?
A They saw our designs in the "100 Best Home Designs" book at a bookstore in Singapore. Several firms were contacted, they picked seven firms and all were commissioned to go forward. This all has happened since the beginning of summer. At that point, the whole development was secret.
Q What is it like to design houses for such a high-profile international client?
A It's such a melting pot. Nowhere that I've gone in the world has it felt so international, yet when I met our representative, he was there in white silk and traditional dress, so it really felt like we were somewhere else. It was really just a powerful experience. Because of what we've had to do to participate at this level, we've had to become better architects.
Q You've said that you've been inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and artist Charles Biederman. What living architect inspires you the most?
A [Santiago] Calatrava, because he's an architect, an artist and he's an engineer. When I talk to young architects or would-be architects, that's what I recommend they do. And most of the people in our office have an art and science background and a master's in architecture. Architecture is a blend of art and science and the more experience you have there, the better.
Q What's your favorite Calatrava building?
A The Milwaukee Art Museum. People can drive there and see the roof open.
Q How has your design evolved over the years?
A I started out designing and rearranging space and going to the compositions. I see it evolving from those simpler geometries. I'm now going to more complicated geometries, but still connected to light. And technology has changed so much.
Q One of the houses featured in the book is environmentally friendly, with geothermal heating and cooling, a system to collect rain water for irrigation and a green roof. What do you consider the most significant advances in sustainable architecture?
A I think the biggest thing is the attitude change. I think we're very much at a hybrid spot right now. I'm waiting for the solar panels to get better. I'm really excited about that.
Jim Buchta 612-673-7376