Gates' Architect Is In Demand All Over -- Large And Small Jobs Have Equal Appeal For Pennsylvania Native Who Has Found A Home Here

Peter Bohlin is running late.

He is to judge a home-design contest for the American Institute of Architects in minutes, an associate gently reminds him, so he fetches his coat and strides into the hallway.

But he pauses to admire a slit of a window by the door - how it reveals the concrete pillars inside and offers an intriguing peek into the light-filled downtown Seattle office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.

And he can't help but stop downstairs in Peter Miller Architecture and Design Books, with its tall shelves filled with architecture books. The woman at the cash register smiles; she knows the drill. Bohlin hands her several volumes and leaves his credit card. He'll come back for the card later. Then he is off.

Long an eminent East Coast architect, Bohlin, 61, has been a hot property on the West Coast ever since his Pennsylvania-based firm was one of two chosen to design Bill Gates' Medina uber-mansion.

When he and Bainbridge Island architect Jim Cutler secured the Gates project a decade ago, Bohlin had the Eastern sensibilities, Cutler the Northwest vision. Now, said Cutler, "he's a competitor" in the region.

And he's a formidable one: "On an intuitive level, he's probably the most talented architect I've ever met," said Cutler, who worked for Bohlin and remains close. "Peter will always make it prettier."

The firm's Seattle office has grown from four to nine people in the past year and a half. The company is responsible for, among other projects, the headquarters of Steve Jobs' Pixar Animation Studios in the San Francisco Bay Area, the University of Washington's new School of Fisheries and School of Oceanography buildings and a California house made of straw bales for legendary photographer Ansel Adams' granddaughter.

"Isn't it fun to work for Ansel Adams' family?" Bohlin remarks.

Amid jetting around to high-profile projects - last week found him going from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Seattle and back to San Francisco, and then Newark, N.J. - he also relishes small spaces and tight budgets.

"Some (architects), I think, don't want to mess with smaller buildings," he says. "But they wouldn't be able to do them maybe."

One of his current projects is the relatively modest Issaquah Library, with an $8.1 million budget and 15,000 square feet.

In this, as in other projects, Bohlin stresses the importance of understanding the nature of a client and of the place.

He included an expansive covered space at the library's front entrance.

"In the fall, I can see people gathering here during your Salmon Days," he told Issaquah city officials.

Bohlin has gained "an understanding of practicing architecture in the Northwest," said David Kunselman, architectural coordinator for the King County Library System. "It means a lot of meeting with the public and a lot of discussion. We tend to have a very vocal and well-organized public."

A sense of place

Although Bohlin insists his firm has no particular style, critics praise its strong "sense of place."

For most of its 34 years, that place was primarily the mid-Atlantic states. The other offices are in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., a coal town where Bohlin founded the firm, winner of the 1994 AIA Architecture Firm Award.

Bohlin's parents had lived in the Wilkes-Barre area. Before he turned 30, he designed a house for them nearby that was featured in The New York Times.

"They were nice clients, actually," he recalls. "Some parents, I've heard, can be very difficult."

He built them a second one years later, this time on a forested hillside in Connecticut, where he spent summers as a child.

"He's a New Englander in humor and wit and wood and stone," says Peter Miller, of the Peter Miller bookstore. "His buildings have a little humor, a little irony."

When his firm teamed up with Bainbridge Island architect James Cutler a decade ago for the $53 million Gates mansion, Cutler received more attention, embraced as the consummate Northwest architect, a genius who used wood and stone and concrete meaningfully and decried the unnecessary bulldozing of trees.

Bohlin shares much of Cutler's environmentalism: The pair used wood salvaged from an abandoned sawmill for Gates' home, and "more and more we'll be using recycled material," Bohlin says.

"You don't want to go after old growth, for sure."

The "Connecticut Yankee," as Miller calls him, sounds a bit Northwestern.

The Gates project "got him out here, (and) he certainly has more of a presence here now," says David Cinamon, an architect with James Cutler Architects.

"His firm in general has a great feel for the relationship of materials to one another in many different vocabularies - whether it's out here or back East."

"He's a regionalist," Miller says. "He just has a lot of regions."

Cookie money

Bohlin's firm is designing a sliver of a house on Seattle's Capitol Hill and a pavilion for that icon of Colonial America, the Liberty Bell. It also has designed a birdhouse in New York, and Pennsylvania Girl Scout camp buildings funded by cookie sales.

"Cookie money," he marvels. "Isn't that great?"

Bohlin delights in such details. He also delights in his clients and exalts his staff, stressing that BCJ works collaboratively.

And he loves its creations. He praises the buildings and points out favorite details with no trace of conceit or modesty.

"Can you see - how this looks out onto the river gorge and how the sun will show here?" Bohlin asks. Chances are you couldn't - he's gesturing over a scale model on a wooden board on a table in his office.

But he's describing what his mind sees: an actual river, an actual sun and miles of undulating Montana prairie, where the firm will build a stone, wood and glass ranch for a San Francisco-area computer magnate.

"What an extraordinary site," he murmurs, his huge blue eyes gazing at the model.

"I think he really is in love with his work," says Laura Haddad, a landscape architect who works at the bookstore. "I think he just really loves his job and is very happy to be in Seattle."

Bohlin, who lives with his wife on Bainbridge Island when here, nearly started his career in Seattle. He came to Seattle on the last day of the 1962 World's Fair. "It was wonderful," he recalls. "You can imagine what a treat it is to be back."

Janet Burkitt's phone: 206-515-5689. Her e-mail: