Quiet + Powerful

Corey Papadopoli on silence and awe in architecture.

PHOTO: Trent Bell
PHOTO: Trent Bell
PHOTO: Wayne NT Fuji’i/Fuji’iMage
PHOTO: Wayne NT Fuji’i/Fuji’iMage
PHOTO: Wayne NT Fuji’i/Fuji’iMage
RENDERING: Elliott + Elliott Architecture

MH+D asks Papadopoli to tell us more.

Q. What inspires you, and more specifically, your designs?

A. We live in a frenetic world with no shortage of stimuli. Many things incessantly compete for our attention, and it is easy to lose focus and connection with our environment. This is why I do not own a cell phone. I believe we need to find ideas in the resolution of simple and everyday problems, to avoid the spectacular in order to make the everyday special. Abraham Heschel refers to this perception as “awe.” Awe enables us to sense that small things are significant, to sense the ultimate in the common and everyday. This might be the play of dappled light through the trees, a view to a garden, or the smell of a sea breeze as it drifts in through the kitchen window. Through this understanding, simple decisions about simple things become critical, creating architecture that turns attention away from itself and toward contemplation and introspection.

Q. How do you implement this in your every-day practice?

A. I use an inductive process over a deductive one. That is, I start with a specific moment with the building or structure and think about the emotional engagement with that space, and then I let that drive the larger conceptual underpinnings. Light is a large motivator for me, as it is such a commodity in Maine. I often think about how I experience light on the site: is it filtered through tree branches? Reflected off water? How does it move across the site? On a recent project I was fortunate to design a house adjacent to the sea. Its location was grandfathered, which gave us more latitude than normal. Presented with this opportunity I sought ways to engage the water other than visually through large windows (though we did this, too, of course). Were there ways to incorporate water not just in the large, “look at me” sense, but also in more visceral respects? Starting with this strategy led to larger ideas that shifted the project in different directions. For example, we separated the house from the ground on the street side of the structure, and a bridge was added to permit entry, creating a threshold at the separation of public and private. When the tide is high and the light is right, sunlight reflects off the water and dances on the underside of the building. This mesmerizing effect gives the house a floating quality.

Q. Looking at your projects, it’s apparent that there’s a dance between the indoors and outdoors. Can you explain how you execute this?

A. This has somewhat to do with the inductive design process. You start small or specific, usually with a moment inside, and then you need to work your way out. There’s a constant shift from inside to outside as the process continues, and you need to play these experiences off each other. When you place priority on the interior experience, which is where one spends most of their time, this can lead to the discovery of quiet transitions between indoors and outdoors. For example, we worked on a project that bridged two seemingly incongruous ideas: the memory of a nineteenth-century Cape Cod house with the desire to blur the distinction between inside and out. The goal was to create an interior experience that brought in the ocean view and gardens. This was done by introducing dematerialized glass elements that do not so much define the space as allow the outdoor space to merge with the indoor. The feeling is one of eating in the gardens, amidst the sight and smell of flowers. I minimized structure and framework to engage the landscape with the house in a way that was not possible in the earlier Cape Cod precedent. To further highlight the singularity of these glass prisms, contrast was created between public and private, between traditional wooden box and modern glass connector. Diffused light permeates a glass stair, drawing one up into the separated realm of bedrooms above. There, the roof is peeled back and the sense of space increased, not by expanse of view in this case, but by admission of light. Here, the rooms take on an almost meditative quality that is enhanced by ever-changing patterns of shadow. The sea and gardens are forgotten, exchanged for a consciousness of the sky.

Q. What makes a powerful architectural experience?

A. For me, a powerful architectural experience eliminates noise and turns attention away from itself. The difficulty for me as an architect is finding ways to draw architecture back into the multisensory realm it is capable of inhabiting. To make the real things of everyday life more meaningful. To evoke awe. It is no simple task, and I am not always successful. It is the reason that great architecture is hard to come by, but when we do experience it, it has the power to stay with us long after we’ve left.

MH+D is proud to partner with acclaimed architectural photographer Trent Bell on his architecture, design, and photography podcast. To hear Trent Bell’s conversation with Corey Papadopoli, please visit trentbell.com/podcast.