Photo © 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Bainbridge Island home, where they discussed Cutler's ideas, Kahn's influence, Cutler's working style, and whether it's outdated.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.