architect: Jim Cutler
interview title: Genius Loci: Jim Cutler's design embraces Northwest place and culture
interviews compilation no: T-17
interview format: text
date: February, 2005
appeared in: Architectural Record
interviewer: Robert Ivy, FAIA
photo by: Art Grice
James Cutler, FAIA, is known for superbly wrought wood structures, including buildings on the Gates family compound in Medina, Washington (1997). He is a staunch environmentalist who believes God is in both the details, which he himself meticulously turns out, and the materials. Anderson Cutler Architects (formerly James Cutler Architects), on Bainbridge Island, off the Seattle coast, has completed more than 300 projects on three continents, and six have won AIA Honor Awards. The 55-year-old native of Pennsylvania's anthracite country studied with Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania. Last August, record editor in chief Robert Ivy visited Cutler at his Bainbridge Island home, where they discussed Cutler's ideas, Kahn's influence, Cutler's working style, and whether it's outdated.
Architectural Record: Has living in this Northwest paradise influenced your work?
Jim Cutler: I know every plant on this property. I've learned to love these 2 acres, and it's opened doors for me. I think that there is such a thing as truth. It's in the tangible reality of what we have around us. To me this is so fundamental, just seeing the world as it is. The highest calling for me in doing architecture is to reveal what's true. So first I'll choreograph how people arrive at a place, illuminating the things that are most true—most poignant—about that place.
AR: Can you talk about the main ideas that underlie your work?
JC: I don't have ideas, in the way Peter Eisenman has ideas. If you take a narrow view, like, "I'm into pop culture, I'm into cyberspace," it's very easy to exclude important particulars and to have a one-liner, like a one-trick pony. I can't do that.
I once had a public debate with Eisenman. There were about 500 architects from all over the world, and we're talking about sustainability and the environment. So I get up and talk about trying to carefully reveal the nature of the land. I say that we need to love the world before we save it. I say that energy is just one part of the environment and that sometimes we are going to waste energy—put a lot of windows in a building—so that we can connect emotionally to a place and want to protect it.
Then Eisenman says, "I think this environmental stuff is totally overblown." He talks about the Wexner Center [Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1989], making all these internal references. It's like architecture is looking at a label instead of at the world. He also talked about doing a building in Frankfurt based on radio waves and how the Green party was "totally out of control" in trying to prevent him from cutting down trees on the site because they contained a rare beetle. I just lost it and said, "Frankly, Mr. Eisenman, wouldn't it have been amazing if you had designed that building around the tangible reality of those beetles and those trees, something that is physically there and emotionally valuable to us, as opposed to radio waves?"
About 15 years ago, I was hired by Native Americans to do a project in Southeast Alaska. I learned from them that all life is sacred—that keeps us aware of interrelationships—and that our hearts are way more important than our minds. Peter can go on forever about his intellectual stuff. For me, the question when I go into one of his buildings is, do I feel awe or wonder? No, I don't.
AR: You studied with Louis Kahn (1901–V74), one of the most influential architects of the mid-20th century, at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn's aesthetic, though rooted in the International Style, was personal and spiritual. He used simple shapes and materials, usually brick and poured-in-place concrete, to create such site-sensitive monumental work as the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas; and the Capital Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Could you talk a little about how studying with Kahn influenced your work, for an audience that might not know about your relationship to him?
JC: You know, there are these points in your life when you have a revelation and something really grabs you, and it's so deep that it becomes you. And I think that's what happened. By the time I studied with Kahn, he was at the end of his career. He was the guru for architects, the last great living architect of that century. Did you ever meet Lou?
AR: No, I didn't.
JC: Okay. So he's about 5 feet 4, and you can't see his eyes, they're so far back behind his cataract glasses, and his hair is long and gray, but it's tinted brown from cigar smoke. The very first project that I did with Kahn, I discovered that we don't do buildings. We do clothing that houses institutions. And we have to tailor the garment to each particular institution's anatomy. You're going to see Grace Episcopal Church  today. It houses an institution that is predicated on abstraction—on belief—and belief, as you know, is pure emotion. So, it's sort of—we're housing belief. We're housing emotions.
Kahn taught me that the next thing we need to do is orchestrate visual experience within a building, within the garment, so that the true nature of the institution is revealed. Materials take on a will. There are certain things they'll do and certain things they won't do. In my world, when things have a will, they have a spirit, and if something has a spirit, it's our job to reveal that spirit and get all the voices to sing together.
AR: Can you go from there to how that plays out in physical architectural solutions and their craft?
JC: Well, look at Salem [Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, 1992]. I worked with the artist Maggy Smith. I looked at it, remembering my father's experience as a Communist when I was a child during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, and I realized persecution has to do with people turning a deaf ear—deafness, silence, and denying memory. The same was true during the witch trials. Maggy and I worked with these words—deafness, silence, and memory—and came up with the design in about an hour and a half. You have the words of the accused on the memorial sliding under the wall in mid-sentence—deafness. When we cut out the back of the memorial and sank part of it into the ground, we put in iron bars through which you look at tombstones of citizens of 1692 who were killed by their neighbors. That was for silence, silent tombstones.
AR: With your populist sensibilities, how do you justify doing houses for extremely wealthy people, in fact Bill Gates, one the richest men in the world?
JC: Look what we got out of Gates. For one thing, we got the world's first heavy-timber-recycling sawmill. Did you know that? Bill wanted the best quality wood in the world and wanted us to look at a nearby forest and see which trees we wanted to cut down. Well, this was at the height of the Spotted Owl crisis here in the Northwest. There was no way I was going to cut down oak. As luck would have it, that very weekend I met this guy, Max Talbert, out of Duluth, who's a salvaged-lumber salesman, and he says, "Jim, I think you should build Gates's house out of salvaged lumber." So my partner, Peter Bohlin, and I got a couple of samples and proposed to Bill that he set up a sawmill for salvaged lumber. Bill created GR Plume & Company and funded it to the tune of a couple million. It was the first heavy-timber-recycling sawmill in the world.
AR: His property included other environmental aspects, didn't it?
JC: If you look at the landscape on Gates's property, you'll see it's the first time anybody ever planted an emergent forest. We went out and with the help of Tom River, the landscape architect, bought about 100 truckloads of forest floor, before they burned it, and spread it over the property. Plus we planted more than 5,000 red elder you can dig out of ditches for free, and we planted an emergent forest. In about 50 years, this forest will have transformed itself from a big-leaf elder forest to a Douglas fir and cedar forest.
Also, the space under the garage is a 100,000-gallon cistern, which we used to buffer the wetlands we created for Gates. Lake Washington's been turned into a desert. All of the wetlands, all the places that foster life, have been embanked and turned into people's front yards. So we talked Bill into creating a wetland. He said, "Wetland. That's the same as a swamp, isn't it? That land cost me $20,000 a front foot." I finally said, "Look, Bill, it's a way for you to connect to the world and stay human. Won't it be wonderful that you'll be able to mark the seasons of your life as salmon return and all kinds of wildlife find this place?" Now the wetland is his favorite thing on the property.
AR: Did the Gates house further your development as a designer?
JC: My understanding of materials took a quantum jump in working with Peter Bohlin. I can show you a direct progression from Grace Episcopal to Gates. Grace was about $150 a square foot; Gates was several times that.
I learned to let materials do all the talking for me. You know, at our very best we're not doing architecture, we're just studying how the components express the physics and biology of a place, and how materials and shapes express the nature of the institution.
AR: You detail to the extreme, which is labor- and time-intensive. How do you justify that level of engagement, time, and effort in our fast-moving, digital society? You're out of step.
JC: It's got to be simple logic: The more you draw, the more you know, the more you're going to be able to integrate. But more important, sometimes my clients aren't well off, so getting it right means a lot. Our historic average on omission errors—that is, changes that happened because we missed something—is about 1 percent. That's because everything's in the drawing, which has a bad side: It scares the hell out of most small contractors.
We publish freehand, not CAD. I draw on 81⁄2-by-11-inch pads, often when I travel. From here to New York is 25 details. I'm serious. It's 25 details. The drawings give my staff a much better understanding of where I'm headed.
But what other value does this kind of detailing have? Doing things well seems to be a better way. It sustains me, gives me self-esteem. We don't have a lot of time on earth, so why not do our best and feel really good about it? But that sometimes makes us not very commercially viable. I just did a federal building, and it was really hard to get it on budget and not lose my shirt and be able to justify it to my partners.
AR: But do other people in your office do CAD?
JC: Yeah. But I find AutoCAD, the industry standard, sucks. There's nothing more capable of making my employees stupid than AutoCAD, because they can draw something two-dimensionally and it looks right to them, but they're not seeing three-dimensionally. So there's a dimension they miss, and things don't fit.
AR: Today, you're working all over the United States, in Florida, New York, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, California, as well as in Europe, in Spain and Australia. How do you manage to keep a high level of care when you're spread so thin?
JC: It's a combination of a lot of things. In Spain, I had a great client, a real gem of a client. I had 18 months to build the building. I had a contractor who at first seemed slow as molasses. And actually was slow as molasses throughout, but he ultimately produced a great product and there wasn't aggravation. We had a teamwork relationship. I have contractors like that. I make sure to have thorough contract documents. I did every detail, which, hopefully, creates better jobs.
AR: Do you say "no" to clients?
JC: Yes, but there are also building types I've always wanted to do: a shopping mall and a suburb. We are doing one multifamily complex—18 three-story houses on an acre—here on the island. It's been sitting on the table for two years, all drawn, and waiting for financing. Housing today is built without the slightest regard for privacy or green space that extends the living area. So I wanted to do a multifamily building that could maybe twist the paradigm. We are working with Lindal Cedar Homes.
AR: Tell us about your relationship with Lindal Homes.
JC: They hired us about two years ago. They have this numbering system for each component. We redesigned the whole line in accordance with a couple of prototypes we designed.
AR: Sort of a low-tech, premanufactured solution, isn't it?
JC: We designed all the buildings so they were in pieces I can manipulate. The smaller the pieces, the more apt the whole is to fit well into a landscape. The ethic of how you fit the building into the landscape is important. We may be able to bring what we do to a larger market. From my standpoint, it's a worthy endeavor.
AR: When you present your ideas—which are, in a sense, classic architectural values—to young people, are they responsive? Is this a message that they listen to now?
JC: I've gotten mixed results. I got evaluation ratings for one class I taught that said they thought my lectures didn't have much intellectual content. They were totally sucked in by Peter Eisenman and his ideas. It's such a Western, Renaissance concept to think that if something is not rational it's not intellectual. Rationalism and intellectualism are not synonymous.
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