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American Prize for Architecture 2023
American Prize for Architecture 2023

Chad Oppenheim the Architect that Designs the Solemn ‘Spirit of the Place’ Reinvigorates Art in the Art of Architecture

Chad Oppenheim, one of America’s most unique, iconic, and visionary design practitioners of our time, has been awarded the 2023 Laureate of The American Prize for Architecture, the prestigious award that is regarded internationally as the highest honor for architecture in the United States.

Oppenheim’s built works, spanning over two decades, are expansive in typology and geography, including works ranging from cultural and hospitality buildings to residences and urban masterplanning throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America.

Subtle, powerful, elegant, and deeply romantic, he is a prolific American architect who is radical in his restraint, demonstrating his reverence for history and culture, as well as time and space, while honoring the preexisting built and natural environments, as he reimagines a more beautiful and poetic world with modern, meaningful buildings that relate to their context and reinvigorates the landscape and places in which his designs exits.

His monumental, immutable architecture enhances the lives of its occupants, realizes a site’s full potential, and protects and celebrates the natural environment.

From the serene Jordanian desert to the lush Bahamas, he shapes buildings and places to achieve the optimal balance between creativity and pragmatism, function and experience, construction and aesthetics.

He treats his buildings and projects with sanctity as he unlocks the mystical and metaphysical essence of the power of architecture.

Oppenheim’s buildings engage and harness their surrounding land and seascapes and showcase the designer’s dedication to sustainable practices and materials.

He believes that buildings and their environment should be deeply symbiotic, where projects “belong” to their site and form follows feeling. Guided by three philosophical pillars—spirit of place, silent monumentality, and the essential—he has spent decades creating landmark architecture that is highly sensitive and responsive to its context and climate.

Every fragment of his designs is essential—every line has a reason and every shape a purpose. Ideas are reduced to the elements and expressions that are truly significant, where the goal is to remove the extraneous, to enhance the meaningful.

For example, in his plans for the Wadi Rum Desert Resort (2011) in Petra, Jordan, Oppenheim carved 47 individual dwellings into the sandstone rock surface, taking conservation measures like harvesting rain water in underground cisterns.

The property engages and harnesses the surrounding desert land and showcases the designer’s dedication to sustainable practices and materials.

In Petra, Oppenheim explores the potential of a site like archaeologists searching for the code that will unlock the vision of a project. The soil, the colors, the landscape, the winds, and the movement of the sun are all elements that are discovered, studied, and considered while shaping the design and, more importantly, the experience of a building.

From the first moment I saw his work over a decade ago, I was immediately moved and overwhelmed by his immense and powerful philosophical awareness for an architecture that transcends the ordinary into the sublime, the ephemeral into the timeless, the commonplace into a significant work of art and, ultimately, a masterpiece.

Such is the power of a real architect and an extraordinary visionary.

Chad Oppenheim founded Oppenheim Architecture in 1999 to design a new kind of sensory, site-specific architecture.

Working across scale, typology, and geography, every Oppenheim project is a sensitive contextual response guided by the philosophy that design follows life and form follows feeling.

A graduate of Cornell University, Oppenheim has served as lead designer for countless place-making assignments around the world. Working closely with clients to realize and amplify their vision, he is backed by strong technical and project teams in Miami and Basel who execute large and complex projects on any continent.

A traveler and cultural nomad from a young age, Oppenheim uncovers the power of a place to optimize how people live, play, or work in that particular environment. His monumental, timeless architecture enhances lives, realizes a site’s full potential, and protects and celebrates the natural environment.

He shapes buildings and places to achieve the optimal balance between creativity and pragmatism, function and experience, construction, and aesthetics.

Oppenheim has lectured widely and taught at various architecture schools, including Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and, most recently, Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

He has published two books – Spirit of Place (2019), a monograph about the practice featuring seven award-winning projects, and Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains (2019), an academic investigation into the cultural associations of modernist design with villainy in cinema.

Since the founding of his firm, Oppenheim has won numerous awards and gained an enormous international presence.

In 2010, Oppenheim created the Wharf Road Condominium in Surfer’s Paradise, Australia as a 1,500,000-square-foot tower configured in a crescent shape to maximize ocean views.

The stories layer up like the striations found in rocky outcrops and, intermittently, cantilevered levels jut out as if stretching towards the ocean. 

Bold, elemental forms and honest materials and detailing have been integrated into this vision of Australia’s bountiful natural resources, both physical and ethereal.

In Qatar’s Brooq Peninsula, Oppenheim designed a vision world as a 650-acre destination Spa and Resort (2021) that captures the vibrant combination and outscale proportions of sky, water, and sand.

Perched on the water, the visionary Qatar resort is rendered with illuminated rooms that make a dramatic counterpoint to the open-air setting.

He sympathetically carved into desert dunes, this coastal spa and resort that sits silently in awe of one of the world’s most influential civilizations. 

The design draws on rich regional cues, paying homage to Qatar’s historic architecture, and to ancient Arabic discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, and navigation—and the new worlds that they opened.

At San Silencio (2007), a 155,000-square-foot property mixing multi-family dwellings, a luxury hotel, and commercial spaces in Caldera, Costa Rica, Oppenheim skillfully balances the sea and jungle with homes built in lava stone, teak, and bamboo.

All of his structures include green roofs, providing thermal insulation, rainwater retention and habitats for flora, fauna and humans.

The property proficiently engages and harnesses its surrounding land and seascapes while showcasing the designer’s dedication to sustainable practices and materials.

In the city of Aqaba in southern Jordan, Oppenheim designed the Ayla Golf Academy and Clubhouse (2018)—an unusual clubhouse with an undulating concrete shell that aims to resemble the surrounding desertscape.

The innovative and organic design of the building forms the iconic core of the Ayla Oasis mixed-use resort development.

The project draws its inspiration from the surrounding desert landscape as well as Bedouin architecture vernacular, massive concrete shell drapes over the program areas, enveloping the interior and exterior walls of each volume.

The curved shotcrete shell blends with the sand like dunes instead of having conventional walls and ceilings.

In Aspen, Colorado, he designed two estates anchored by rivers and streams.

The one 10,000-square-foot Aspen home, set on four acres, is designed to maximize the outdoor elements, which includes a precast concrete bridge that traverses the woodsy landscape.

Another, La Muna House (2011), a 3,500-square-foot home in Aspen’s Red Mountain enclave, evocatively underscores a rustic imperfection, as the architect worked with natural materials like reclaimed regional wood and stone.

The project also emphasizes sustainability, including solar collectors to provide energy for power and hot water.

Likewise, the Muttenz Water Purification Plant, Muttenz, Switzerland (2017) harmoniously reconciles an industrial building, a protected ecosystem, and a stringent budget.

The coated water-treatment plant in a mixture of stone and clay creates a building reminiscent of a natural rock form eroded by flowing water where technical and safety requirements are all met and also invited a primeval and tactile experience reflecting the sanctity of water.

"The role of the architecture is to link and express the unique and state-of-the-art technology, placed in a natural ecosystem and emphasizing the importance of the purification process," explains Oppenheim.

Perhaps, his most ambitious project to date is the Desert Rock Resort in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has been ongoing.

The project is part of an ambitious and unprecedented eco-tourism development, set among 11,000 square miles of islands, beaches, desert, mountains, and volcanic areas. In contrast with the curvilinear forms of his nearby Sacred Reef Resort, this inland project engages with the majestic granite mountains and mythical desertscape.

Working with the language of the earth, Oppenheim has designed new spaces and experiences—buildings that disappear within the tectonic landscape, echoing ancient Nabatean civilizations that once lived in the region.

Indoor and outdoor spaces are located within crevices and caves, or on shaded slopes, utilizing the cooler microclimates and minimizing solar gain.

These discrete locations camouflage the architecture during the day, while at night they glow like small lanterns dotted across the massif.

In terms of sustainability, most construction materials will be recycled from the site, so that building impact is minimal and new forms embody the same colors and minerals as their surroundings.

Overall, Oppenheim’s attention is not only to the substance of architecture and its meaning, but also to the contribution architects can make to address the existential challenges of climate change.

He is the “Green Architect’ extraordinaire.”

As the architect states: “To live in harmony with the natural world, we must learn how to re-engage the land. Earnest and timeless, the architecture is simultaneously powerful, yet comfortable; primitive, yet innovative; casual, yet elegant; raw, yet refined.”

With the 2023 American Prize for Architecture, we celebrate one of America’s most unique, iconic, and visionary design practitioners of our time.

Chad Oppenheim the Architect that Designs the Solemn ‘Spirit of the Place’ Reinvigorates Art in the Art Of Architecture

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