CUTLINE: PETER ARRON, ESTO PHOTGRAPHICS: ABOVE - AS HE FOCUSES ON ENVIRONMENTAL FIT, CUTLER INCREASINGLY DESIGNS HOUSES ON TRESTLES OVER NATURAL FEATURES, SUCH AS A STREAM IN THIS PORT BLAKELY HOUSE. FOR THIS ``BRIDGE HOUSE,'' THE DESIGN NECESSITATED CUTTING DOWN ONLY ONE TREE, WHICH WAS USED TO BRIDGE THE STREAM. LEFT - CUTLER WON AWARDS FOR THIS HIGHLANDS GUEST HOUSE THAT HE SAYS ``TELLS A STORY'' ABOUT THE PRESENT COMING OUT OF PAST CULTURES. THE ARCHAIC-LOOKING CONCRETE WALL TO THE RIGHT, WHICH IS VISIBLE FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE AT MANY POINTS, WILL AGE AT A DIFFERENT RATE FROM THE WOOD STRUCTURE.
CUTLINE: EARLY IN HIS CAREER, CUTLER DESIGNED THIS PORT TOWNSEND HOUSE SIMILAR TO A NANTUCKET RESIDENCE. HE DISCOVERED, HE SAYS, THAT THE NORTHWEST IS NOT NANTUCKET AND THAT HOUSES NEED OVERHANGS IN THIS WET CLIMATE.
CUTLINE: THE ``ASSOCIATES'' OF JAMES CUTLER & ASSOCIATES CROWD TOGETHER IN THE WINDOW OF THEIR BOAT-SHED LOFT OFFICE. WHEN THE COMPETITION FOR BILL GATES' COMPLEX ON THE EASTSIDE WAS UNDER WAY, LIGHTS IN CUTLER'S OFFICE STAYED ON AROUND THE CLOCK AS HIS ARCHITECTS DREW THEIR WAY TO THE WINNING DESIGN. ``IT WAS A TEAM EFFORT,'' CUTLER SAYS.
CUTLINE: WITH MOST OF THE STAFF GONE FOR THE DAY, CUTLER RESTS A MOMENT, GLANCING AT A DRAWING HE'LL SPEND HIS WEEKEND FINISHING. OUTSIDE HIS OFFICE WINDOW IS WINSLOW WHARF MARINA.
CUTLINE: PENNSYLVANIA ARCHITECT PETER BOHLIN, RIGHT, FORMED A JOINT VENTURE PARTNERSHIP WITH CUTLER, LEFT, TO TAKE THE LEAD ON THE GATES COMPETITION. ``I KNEW 1 PLUS 1 WOULD EQUAL 3,'' BOHLIN SAYS OF THE CONFLUENCE OF THE TWO FIRMS.
Jim Cutler heads down the dock in front of his office, eases his rowing shell into Eagle Harbor and sets off with strong strokes past the houseboats, tugs and anchored cruisers. The shell slips past a house Cutler designed, a boxy structure of natural wood and mullioned windows stuck out on a dock and looking like an old net shed - which, in fact, it once was.
As he takes this row, his backdrop is an old industrial plant and the green trees of the Bainbridge Island hillside. Those trees are important to him; nothing sets him off quite as much as a clear-cut building site.
Cutler is an almost fanatically environmental architect. He designs houses twisted around trees, digging them into hillsides and covering them with vegetation, or putting them on stilts and trestles so they span an ethereal forest floor and leave it as pristine as possible. His houses are of natural materials - wood and stone - with natural finishes, with soft, grayish trim. They blend into the earth, increasingly so as his career progresses, until it seems that eventually his quest to be unobtrusive might lead him back to the cave.
The 40-year-old architect's brown eyes darken with intensity when he talks about how ``this stuff,'' the trees and land, was here first and has first claim on the earth. And his eyes cloud with fury when he sees chock-a-block suburban houses on a stripped piece of property hung with real-estate signs.
He's taken his feeling about the bruised earth to heart - to such a degree that when clients come to him, he screens them rather than the other way around. If they agree with the fewer-trees-cut-the-better program, they're in. If not, they find themselves out in the gravel parking lot.
But these days, when he returns from the daily row that's his stress-reliever and heads back to the boat-shed loft of his small office in Winslow, the drawing Cutler sets to work on is not for an environmental leader nor even for some
one who wants to leave the turmoil of modern society behind.
It's a design for a house for the preeminent giant of computer technology, Microsoft king Bill Gates.
The Gates house is a plum of a job for Cutler. He's primarily a residential architect, though he has worked on projects such as a lodge and hotel in Ketchikan, Alaska. He's had prestigious clients - and has projects on the East Coast as well as in the Seattle area - but most of his houses run in the $225,000 range. He says he will always build real houses for real people.
Cutler favors canvas shirts and doesn't even use a computer. He is the kind of man who finds it easy to talk about architecture and its relationship to society, and about how his style has evolved from Nantucket-type houses to houses designed to allow the loss of only one tree.
Gates' house will be just somewhat smaller than a football field. The 34,000-square-foot complex will be set on more than five hillside lots in quiet Medina on the Eastside, four acres with 350 feet of waterfront. It will cost Gates an amount of money that, as one neighbor puts it, ``is higher than we can count.'' The house will be filled with technology - high-definition television screens, multimedia systems and computers - no surprise, since Gates and computers go together like DOS and Windows.
It's up to Cutler and Peter Bohlin, his joint-venture partner, to show that Gates-style technology and Cutler-brand ecology are an equally good match.
Cutler won Gates' international architectural competition, a contest that included architects from France, Japan and the rest of the United States. He didn't win alone; Cutler and Bohlin formed a legal joint-venture partnership that blends Cutler's nine-member firm and Bohlin's 50- to 60-member Pennsylvania firm. But Cutler was the only Northwest architect invited to enter the competition. He was a rather dark-horse competitor in a field of name-brand proven winners.
The design that won is remarkably simple and almost archaicly calm for such a huge project, and for a client who could afford something more ostentatious. Gates' property is on a steep hillside, and the architects tucked about three-quarters of the building underground. The building looks west over Lake Washington. Floor plans filed at Medina's City Hall show an 8,000-square-foot parking garage to be covered by vegetation, in addition to the 34,000 square feet that will make up the living area. The underground rooms (including an arcade game room, assorted bedrooms and theater) will connect five ground-level buildings on different terraces of the hillside. Those buildings are an entry pavilion, a guest dining room to serve 20, a reception hall to serve 120, a beach pavilion with barbecue and hot tub and extensive dock, and Gates' private residence. There'll be a swimming pool and exercise area, also tucked into the hillside.
Elevators - one for Gates' private space and one for guests - will take people from the top of the hill underground to the living areas. A room dubbed ``the Wurlitzer'' will house a data-retrieval system. The design shows children's bedrooms and a room for an au pair - provisions for the future, apparently, since Gates is a bachelor.
Drawings illustrating the view from the water side show the building tucked into the hillside, looking almost like a small village that has been painted on a Japanese print. Only the complex of small structures is visible; the underground sections fit the hillside and are faced with windows, so that the view from the water is of a hillside inlaid with rows of glass panels - eyes peering from under earthy brows. There's a covered walkway outside the windows that connects the different spaces.
``It's a hybrid of types,'' Cutler says of the design. The lighter wooden pavilions with pitched roofs above grade contrast with the massively structured underground rooms that will be built of either stone or concrete. A few of the underground rooms will have sod roofs, but most of the roof structures will be able to bear the weight of trees.
There are only two spaces, says Cutler, that don't open out onto the landscape: the theater and arcade. As for the landscape, it's a re-creation of a Northwest forest, an arboretum of trees and shrubbery native to the area. Every tree that is taken out in the construction will be replaced with reasonably mature trees. Cutler and Bohlin plan to begin growing trees off site or to move them from other, local projects, and estimate they'll plant 1,000 fir trees on the property. The trees there now are second growth with tops flattened; it is as if a
helicopter, turned upside down, came along and gave them a crew cut, says Cutler's project manager, Bruce Anderson. (Cutler says the trees were ``mutilated'' to open up the view.)
Cutler also wants to develop a new estuary where a salmon run could be established. Whether the salmon can be planted there or not depends on just how much ground water the estuary will collect. If it's not enough, then Cutler plans to establish a wetland, if the arduous permit process will allow it.
``Most of the lake is embanked now,'' he says. ``The northern part of this site will look more like Lake Washington waterfront was years ago.'' That waterfront was resplendent with seasonal streams when the Eastside was still a summer haven for Seattleites, with natural greenery marching down to the water's edge instead of bulkheads topped by lawns.
The landscaping is 20 percent of the project budget - and was key to Cutler and Bohlin's design entry in the Gates competition. ``We told Bill Gates our design would not be just a design and landscape. The design and the landscape would be one,'' Cutler says.
And that sensitivity to the environment was what won the competition for them, says Michael Doss, Gates' architectural counsel and organizer of the competition. ``That tells you something about his (Gates) attitude,'' Doss says.
Gates, with his customary reluctance to discuss his personal life, won't talk about the project - except to neighbors in Medina, neighbors who, so far, are charmed by the design.
Rupert Soriano Jr. lives right on the edge of the Gates property; he bought his childhood home there. ``It won't be a monstrosity - it'll be beautiful,'' Soriano says. ``On that bluff, I thought the only thing they could do would be a high rise, but instead of scooping the hillside out, they're going into it.''
The neighbors are curious about how much their new neighbor is spending on this complex. (Some architects speculate the house alone will cost $5 million, not including the computer technology, landscaping, garage or other amenities.)
Soriano adds that he was really happy to see that Gates chose someone like Cutler for the job. ``It made me proud that a large corporation can select someone like him - the small person does stand a chance.''
Cutler worked for Bohlin's firm, Bohlin Powell Larkin Cywinski, when he was just out of school (Bohlin still calls him Jimmy) and he was naturally worried that he'd be overpowered by his old boss. But in the end, he agreed to the partnership, which they made legal and which both say has resulted in absolutely equal pull.
``Partly it was tactical,'' Cutler says of the decision to join with Bohlin. ``We were a firm of nine people; he has 50 to 60 in three offices. But we were local, he was far away. He knew we were the only local firm invited. And partly it was interest in design.''
Though Bohlin does more and varied work - commercial, residential and several university projects - both architects favor clean, fairly traditional designs. Bohlin is possibly more playful and surprising in his designs than Cutler; Cutler says Bohlin added the surprise to their design for the contest. Bohlin's firm is known for integrating technology into a building; it designed the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for example.
Oddly enough, the importance Gates placed on his house's technology dovetailed into Cutler's insistence on environmental fit. They knew from studying Gates' specifications that he wanted technology subtly integrated into design, not design taken from technology.
They won, says Doss, because Gates' principle attitude was that everything should be subdued, that none of the systems in the house should make their presence known. He liked the master planning and concept development, their use of wood, Doss says.
``We won,'' says Bohlin, ``because we were more in tune with his hopes.''
``I sensed,'' says Doug Kelbaugh, AIA, chairman of the UW's Architecture Department, ``that Jim Cutler would take it more seriously and work harder than his competitors. It was such an opportunity for him; the others already have large projects. Jim seized the moment.''
Seizing the moment meant a big hole in Cutler's office, where he took out a wall and is expanding to include three more architects from Bohlin's firm to work with his architects on the Gates project. The office is small - just the second floor of a chandlery built into a remodeled boat shed - jammed with drafting tables, blueprints and the young architects who succeeded in winning a sought-after job with Cutler. But the cramped space promotes the free exchange of ideas, and there's an odd, warm feeling in the room; that could stem as much from the warmly finished wood trim - a Cutler trademark - as anything. In the wake of the Gates win, there's also a feeling of pride. Cutler is emphatic that the competition was won not by him or Bohlin, but by the entire team.
But Cutler can't deny that his name is the one on the door.
``I consider him one of a handful of really good Northwest architects,'' says Tom Bosworth, a noted Seattle architect and a UW instructor. ``He has a small office and is serious about his work. His work runs in a narrow, predictable range, which is good because he's perfecting that area in which he works.''
Cutler, who is from Pennsylvania, has had incredible success in the Northwest, partially because he's so insistent on fitting his houses into the environment.
But it took a jarring event, an almost spiritual revelation, to convince him to design that way.
Early in the '80s he had a Bainbridge Island client with a waterfront lot that was 400 feet of ``ethereal forest, a fantastic place.'' Cutler had just taken on the habit of sighting trees with a survey instrument to determine the location of the building in relation to them.
``I was beginning to see that it's nice to anchor a building with trees,'' he says. Up to that point, he was following standard procedure and clear-cutting trees for a building pad.
The owners were concerned about light, and thought it would be nice to sell the trees on the lot. They argued with Cutler about it. Then one day they called and asked him to come to the site. When he got there, all he saw was brown earth stretching down to the water and two smoldering piles of stumps.
``I'm in my car and I'm gasping,'' he says. ``It was like watching people being killed - that's how it felt. I turned to the owner and said, `You just made me realize that I'm part of the rapacious system that's devouring the planet and no matter how good a job I do, I just make it worse.' And - this is pretty close to a quote - the owner said, `Jim, I'm not into anything as cosmic as that. I just want to impress my friends and be able to see the house from a distance.' ''
Cutler was ambivalent about his work for the next year and, in about 1984, began to focus on the environment.
Cutler actually came to architecture through an interest in anthropology. Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his Russian-born father ran a clothing business, Cutler says he was the black sheep. By the time he was 16, he was into hot rods and motorcycles, something his business-oriented parents found obscene. (He still says his favorite thing to do is fool with his TR 4A - a car that Bruce Anderson says take one hour of work per one hour of driving.)
Cutler went to the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, majoring in physical anthropology. It was, at least in part, a class about molars in prehistoric man that made him change his major. Bored to death in that class, he took one in art history, where a professor lectured on the cathedral at Amiens, France, one of the finest pieces of architecture in the world. The 138-foot-tall building was the embodiment of the culture - ``the culture was on the walls,'' Cutler says.
``I went from the romance of reading Loren Eiseley to molars. Anthropology is the study of culture, but not the expression of it. Architecture, I now discovered, is its expression.''
He walked out of the lecture hall and asked how to get into the architecture department. By the time he was 21, he'd skipped the first year of graduate school and was in the second. It was then he met his mentor, Louis Kahn, an architect noted for his metaphysical inquiries into the purpose of a building and emphasis on the harmony of man and nature. Kahn's thinking pervaded the school, Cutler says.
It was Kahn who taught him that the nature of the materials was what was important. ``A real famous quote from Kahn is, `I asked the brick what it wanted and it wanted an arch,' '' Cutler says. The students dealt with simple hierarchy, simple geometric orders and simple symmetries, examples of which can be seen in Cutler's houses today.
Cutler won a fellowship to Europe, but once there learned that Wilkes-Barre had been almost wiped out by a flood, with his parents' house and business ruined. He returned home to rebuild their house, but gave up the fellowship and couldn't afford to get back into graduate school. It was then he worked for Bohlin, until he got scholarships to Kahn's studio as one of 10 Americans and 10 foreign students.
Kahn taught with a Socratic approach, asking abstract questions and leaving the solution up to the students. Bohlin jokingly refers to Cutler's use of ``mumbo jumbo'' because of Kahn's teaching; Cutler does tend to talk in terms of architecture ``as a garment clothing an institution'' and the need for an architect to understand the anatomy of an institution before a building can grow from it. When he was at Kahn's he designed a building around the institution of marriage, a building of two rooms: one extremely focused and directional with light at one end of it, and another one with light on all sides and a fire in the middle, for informal gatherings - ``one celebrating the ceremony of being married and one the reality of the institution.'' The building was set in a pond, to show that the unit was separated from the rest of the world.
Cutler and his wife, Pam, moved to Seattle so she could go to UW grad school
in architecture. They were childhood sweethearts, dating in high school and beyond. Pam has worked with Seattle architecture firms and now works part-time in their island office. They lived for a time out of a car at Fay Bainbridge State Park, the closest campground to Seattle. Cutler worked on the Pike Place Market restoration and other assorted jobs, but realized he wanted to work alone. ``I have strange work habits,'' he says. He worked from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. until he had kids; now he works from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., as well as days. He set up shop on Bainbridge with a door set on a couple of sawhorses.
When he saw the recession coming in the early '80s, Cutler joined the American Institute of Architects so he could enter AIA contests. In 1981, he won an honor award for a Port Townsend house, a wood-shingle structure set alone in a field and built over an existing concrete bunker. But as well as winning contests, he was learning something important.
The Port Townsend house had cropped eaves and shingles, like houses in Nantucket, and Cutler quickly found that the Northwest is not Nantucket. The design won awards, but the windows leaked and he ended up paying for that.
He designed houses in the style of Robert Venturi, then became enamored with Mario Botta's more brutal expression using masonry instead of the Northwest wood style. Cutler designed a house with a flat roof and learned that flat roofs in the Northwest require maintenance. There was water in the skylights and he had to pay to fix that.
He tried a stair-step form building, with windows that moved in and out in a Robert Stern style, and that too failed. He says, ``I was not paying attention to the environment, and I was upset with my mistakes.''
Next, he designed a house on Riviera Beach on Lake Washington, a house he calls important because he did consider the tight environment of a narrow lakeside lot and the context of the neighborhood.
``It had to fit into the context of beach cottages,'' he says, and it had to fit another institution, the institution of family. He solved the problem by designing a two-piece structure, one offset from the other. The two boxy traditional buildings looked almost like a child's drawing of a house; pitched roofs and eaves; simple, clean lines. With that house he realized the importance of a garden to the house and family and, most important, the idea of fit, both to the environment and the nuances of family.
When he designed the house on Eagle Harbor that had been a net shed (used for storing and repairing fishing nets), he kept the basic design of the old industrial building to fit it into the context of what's basically an industrial harbor. That house won awards, too, mainly for Cutler's use of wood. Because he uses primarily fir covered with only a clear varnish, it turns a warm red as it ages.
Cutler doesn't believe a house has to sacrifice light to fit into the trees; he uses a great many windows, sites the house to catch the sun and does selectively trim and thin when needed.
After his revelation at the clear-cut lot, Cutler began pre-qualifying his clients, telling them about his philosophy of fitting the house to the site.
Cutler is most proud, perhaps, of the bridge house, the house built across a historic stream that runs into Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island's south end. The award-winning house is typical Cutler: traditional pitched roof, overhangs, natural materials and soft color. To build it, he had one tree cut down, and used that tree as a bridge across the stream. The design brought some criticism for having a house over a stream at all, but Cutler said the original owners wanted a colonial house that would have wiped out the stream altogether.
When a golf driving range was proposed on the site of an old dairy farm on the island, Cutler and Nate Thomas, a Bainbridge resident and Seattle architect, formed the Bainbridge Island Land Trust. The golf driving range, not a bad use in itself, Cutler says, would have changed the image of the land as rural.
``We lose land by increments,'' he says. When contractors call a site a pad, for example, the perception of the land is changed for the next person who comes along; when land is called a lot, it becomes suburban; when the hills in Seattle become a set of contours and abstractions, it becomes urban and then the land itself has no influence on what's there, Cutler says.
Cutler's architecture evolved one more step when his mother died and his first child reached an age that Cutler could remember being. He began to see a nurse log - those large rotting forest logs from which small trees grow - as the perfect metaphor for life, that all is inevitably changed by what previously existed.
Cutler decided that his work should tell a story, rather than make a statement directly, allowing those who see it to arrive at certain ideas. In the Highlands guest house, the story idea came together. The house is set 15 feet into a berm. It's partially surrounded by a separate concrete wall, but is set at a slight angle to the wall. The wall becomes rough-edged and crumbles gradually into the earth at the entryway to the house. The wood of the house is juxtaposed to this immutable surface, and will show age at a different pace than the wall.
Cutler originally had the back corner of the house set parallel to the wall, but found that limited the entry space. When he twisted the house only, it made the entry larger and funneled people away from the private spaces of the house and into the public. In the living room the
enclosure itself is square to the wooden building.
The wall is pervasive throughout the house, glimpsed from almost every passageway and room. People ask him why he left that ``old'' wall there, he says, and he answers that Ursula Le Guin's book ``Always Coming Home'' should be the plot for the house, since it's about building on the ruins of a culture.
Cutler admits there are contradictions between his attitude and his work. For example, he uses a great deal of wood, often fir, which is becoming scarce. But, he says, people need shelter and that means using something from the earth. ``The fact is, we never make the environment better,'' Cutler says.
Cutler is not without his critics, some of whom say he always wants to get his way, others who think his work is too conservative.
On Cutler's office wall is a plaque holding a golden ear. He says it's the best award he's gotten. On one project, the design for the Island School, a private grade school, he butted heads with administrators, gaining the reputation that he wouldn't listen to anybody.
Several years and several buildings later, he designed the addition to the school, and the administrators gave him the plaque along with a commendation award from the ``American Institute of Clients'' for having learned to listen.
Cutler's reputation among other Northwest architects is that he is hard-working, detail-oriented and traditional. Says Arne Bystrom, winner of two coveted AIA National Honor Awards, ``The question is whether you want to be original or good, faddish or responsible. Cutler is the latter.''
Among the Northwest's young architects, there is almost a division between the more traditional architects, like Cutler, and those who are pushing the limits with experimentation. Mark Millett, an architect who uses a lot of metal - galvanized steel and aluminum, for example (he's the designer of the Gravity Bars), praises Cutler's highly worked-out plans at the same time he notes the difference between Cutler and others. ``He's been successful because his style is not far-out. He doesn't offend anyone on siting, as opposed to more modernist architects. He blends buildings into the site, so has a mass appreciation,'' Millett says. ``That's not the same as the rest of us who are less concerned about that. We are interested in the difference between building and the site.''
The UW's Kelbaugh puts another twist on the Gates project. There is, he says, a down side to it: ``The argument can be made that these kind of resources are
excessive, even decadent, to be spent on private residences.'' Kelbaugh says architects have a moral obligation to serve society at large as well as clients. ``It's a concern that our economic system results in these wild gaps between the richest and poorest members of society.''
Kelbaugh says, with his tongue at least partially in cheek, that he told Cutler he should do penance by designing some low-income housing.
But Cutler places Gates on something of a soapbox, whether Gates means to be there or not. He says, ``Of all the people in the world who could execute something major for the environment, who better than a guy open to concepts, of a generation that's aware of the environment and who has the money to do it superbly?''
If lack of pretension is something they have in common, a knowledge of computer technology is not. But Cutler is learning. Gates sent him to Japan with a representative from Microsoft to look at electronic systems, especially the way high-definition TV screens fit into buildings there. A mock-up of a room in the house will be built at Microsoft so the systems can be tested before they're placed in Gates' house.
No one's saying what those systems will be, except that Gates wants them integrated into the house so they are accessible but not obtrusive. It's no secret that Gates has been working on a system utilizing CD-ROM (compact disk-read only memory), a multimedia system, which would allow people to get both visual and audio information at the push of a button.
For Cutler, one question is how to integrate high-definition screens into the buildings at the Gates complex and how to take into account the fast-moving improvements that could change the amount of space needed for the screens and for the electronics connected to them.
While he easily talks about tucking buildings into hillsides and revegetation, Cutler obviously isn't crazy about television, which he says is tremendously antisocial. That doesn't mean, however, that computer technology can't be made to fit just as a building fits the landscape, Cutler says.
When asked if it isn't ironic that an environmental architect should be asked to build a house for a technological wizard, Gates' architect Doss merely answers, ``Read `Dune.' ''
In ``Dune,'' says Doss, the people took the technology for granted, it was subdued. The information was at their fingertips, easily accessible but in the background. Doss says Gates does not want the computers, communication systems and entertainment systems to become the aesthetic of the house.
Maybe Gates is right. Perhaps, if Cutler is someone who can tuck houses into hillsides, it's a small step to tuck antisocial screens and computers into walls and cabinets. If he can get crumbling walls to say something about time, perhaps he can expand his mantra of ``design and landscape as one'' into a ``Dune''-like triad - a trinity of design, landscape and technology.
THERESA MORROW IS A FREE-LANCE WRITER LIVING ON BAINBRIDGE ISLAND.