Interview with Robert Oshatz: The Natural Beauty and Lyrical Music of Architecture
In the words of the great German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling, “Architecture in general is frozen music.” If this is to be believed, then the Portland, Oregon based architect Robert Oshatz could be considered a regular virtuoso. Having worked as an architect since the early 70s, Oshatz has become renowned for designing homes with a unique “sense of poetry,” and an appreciation for the natural world – resulting in homes so catered to the local environment that they often appear to blend into the landscape. According to Oshatz, his unique style of design is part of a larger belief in creating human dwellings that exist at peace with the environment that they occupy.
Q: How did you get started as an architect?
I got started back when I was 15. I started working for an architect in junior high school after I became fascinated with mechanical drafting and people said you should be an architect… I had no idea what that was but it sounded nice and so I started playing around designing hypothetical houses and building little models. When I started high school, there was an architect that had an office a block away and I asked him if I could come in and clean up and run errands and just be around to see what it’s like to be an architect. He wasn’t too busy at the time, so he put me down at a drafting table and started to teach me. It ended up that in my 3 years of high school, I went to school from 9am to 12pm, and then worked for this architect from 1pm to 5pm. Though afterward I went off to college to get a degree in architecture, the most important things I learned were during those 3 years of high school working for that one man.
Q: How would you characterize the kind of architecture you create?
I think of my work as an architecture that is at peace with its environment, and also where people are at peace within it. What I try to do is I look at every site as having its own sense of poetry to it, and I try to capture that poetry in its physical structure. At the same time, I’m also looking at the project of the client in components; the first is very simple – how many bathrooms they want, or how many people sleep in the house and an idea of the budget. But then there’s also more of a psychological or emotional component that’s important – the way a person wants to have light coming into their home and how they perceive color and textures… All that goes into putting together the project because the idea is to design a structure that’s unique to a person so that they’re not adapting to the structure, rather it’s as if the structure is adapted to them.
Q: What is the role of nature in your design?
When you try to think in terms of what is beauty, we always associate beauty with natural elements in nature or the human body. [Conversely], when you think in terms of nature, you think in terms of beauty, and when dealing with nature, everything seems to be in its right place without the need for intervention by man. So when I’m designing something I look at nature as one of the points or starting points. If the home will be situated on a beautiful environment, and now I’m being asked to put a structure into that environment…I design the structure so it feels like it was a part of the environment. And sometimes your site isn’t as beautiful, so I design the structure to enhance the beauty of that sight.
Q: How do you balance innovative design with functional home-building?
When I design a structure, I don’t start with a preconceived idea of what the structure might look like. I start by designing it based on how they want to live in the structure. For example, I might walk out to the site and meet a client and ask what is it about the site they like so much – because there’s probably more than just the fact that it is a right location or right price. Then I ask how they want to live on the property – I’ll ask “what’s the first thing they want to see when they wake up in the morning, where they want the sun to come in, etc.” So if I were to design this structure with a preconceived notion I’d be very hard-pressed to solve that with how my client presented it to me. But once I know what the client wants, then I begin designing the home to be nothing more than a reflection of the interior space so that what you see on the outside is actually happening on the inside of the structure, and vice versa. It’s kind of like the human body… you have these vital organs and you have these skeletons that protects them and the skin that covers everything and determines what you see… but the most important thing is that it functions and works the way the client wants to use the structure, and that the home remains as vital and important to the person living in it as their own body.
Images: Cameron Neilson
Alex Levin is a writer for Granite Transformations, a green remodeling company that advances sustainable construction practices by finding new ways to reduce waste and recycle such as using broken Skyy vodka bottles to make countertops.