Nestled within (not below) the treetops of a densely wooded plot, the extraordinary sweeping lines and unusual forms found in the Wilkinson house are typical of the always-unique work of architect Robert Harvey Oshatz.
In an architectural landscape seemingly built of stark white cubes, fantastical fluid skyscrapers and structures that seem to defy the principles of engineering, the work of Robert Harvey Oshatz is best described as refreshing. Neither traditional nor resembling the usual connotations of contemporary design today, Oshatz’s houses and public projects are organic, fused with nature and always unique. Conceived from the inside (“The exterior is never the first priority,” he says) and with a hint of retro references from the period of Frank Lloyd Wright (“I didn’t learn from him directly but rather I was able to see someone who was practicing architecture the way I wanted to practice it.”), it is difficult to categorize an Oshatz residence, let alone estimate the period it dates from.
The Wilkinson house of 2004 is typical of Portand, Oregon-based Oshatz’s work. Nestled in a secluded woodland plot in Oregon, the house is positioned high above the ground so that the owner could live amongst the birds and not have to look up to see them. “The whole idea was that the structure should be at peace within its environment,” says Oshatz of the design concept. “The client tells me that visitors often describe themselves as being at peace when inside the house, which is exactly the word we used when designing it.”
Constructed from acres of wood, brick and copper, the Wilkinson residence’s sweeping lines and circular entryways might appear as strong aesthetic decisions but are in fact a response to both the sloping site and the music lover client’s brief for optimal acoustics. The owner’s collection of art, furniture and wine also informed some of the unusual shapes. “There was a budget for the house,” concludes Oshatz. “But the client said that if was getting a piece of art he would be willing to spend more money.”
Robert Harvey Oshatz’s definition of luxury?
Luxury would be living the quality of life that you dream of. If you want to live an artist’s life, then living that life is a luxury. It’s a luxury to be able to do what your heart’s desire is.
We discovered your work through images of the Wilkinson residence, which you completed in 2004. Tell us about this project.
The client had a wooded site in Oregon and his brief was that he wasn’t interested in just the views. He wanted to be able to be among the birds to hear them sing. He was an avid music lover who sings in a choir and plays the viola in a string quartet, so having music in his home and good acoustics in the house was important to him. His other big passion was to have a big deck to entertain on. He had a wine collection so he wanted to have a nice cellar to hold about 4,500 bottles of wine. He liked to have dinners that might last four or five hours where he made one course at a time with the wine paired to each course. The house was to be very warm and inviting – he had a desire to have a special environment.
Where does its extraordinary external shape come from?
Every site has its own sense of poetry to it. What I try to do is capture that poetry and bring it inside. Then I try to use the materials that I use inside and bring them outside so that the structure feels like it is one composition. The Wilkinson house is in the woods on a sloping site. I raised the house so that you are in among the branches of the trees rather than looking up to the trees. The sweeping shape was partly because the client had expressed that he liked soft flowing lines and was also due to the fact that the site was on a soft slope. I was also very conscious of the acoustics, which the shape helps to optimise.
The Wilkinson residence is just one of many of your houses which are all unique with their unusual forms and exterior shapes. What connects the houses?
I don’t ever want to repeat my work. I like to experiment and try different things. But I do like to use natural materials. I always design from the inside and work my way out. Then I take the materials that I use inside and bring them out. The main reason why each house is very different from one another is that each site is uniquely different and each client is uniquely different. I design houses according to the way a client wants to live and use their home. I want the house to adapt to the client.
Do clients approach you having been attracted by these fantasy-like structures?
The client of the Fennell floating home saw the Wilkinson house and wanted something just like it. But he had a completely different site as his was on water. He wanted to have the exposed wood beams, he wanted to use copper, he wanted to use shingles, which were all found in the Wilkinson residence. So the vocabulary of materials are very similar but the house is on water and it mimics the rippling and movement of the river. People walk into that house and they feel like they’re in the wake of a wave. They sense the movement of water. The expression of the structure is very different.
You worked and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright Junior while at Arizona State University in the mid-1960s. How did he influence you?
I worked for Frank Lloyd Wright’s oldest son over two different summers. The biggest influence that he had on me was that I wanted to live a life not as a businessman doing architecture to make a living but doing architecture as an art form and being in control of my work rather than delegating in a large firm. For three years while at high school I worked for a local architect in the afternoon. There, I became familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright and started to study his work to try to understand what he was doing. That was my most important architectural education.
Your houses use a lot of wood, glass and natural materials. Is there something about being close to nature that is important to your work?
That’s something that’s very important to me. Every architect has their own agenda as to what’s important to them. When a potential client interviews you, you also need to interview them to make sure that the things you believe in are things that they want. Most of my clients think of contemporary architecture as white boxes. They don’t want that and they also don’t want a traditional house either. The clients that come to me tend to want structures that have a very warm and natural feeling with inside and outside blended into nature.
You have previously spoken of architecture versus buildings. What do you see being created in today’s world?
Today with computers people are just doing shapes and forms for the sake of shape and form. A lot of the buildings are just ridiculous, they don’t necessarily function well and they’re just visual images. They look like the might fall down and they’re meant to look like that! It doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t feel that it’s important to be different in that way.
Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright, which other architects’ work do you admire?
One architect I always admired was John Lautner, the only apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright who actually went out and did something on his own that was uniquely himself and not an imitation of Frank Lloyd Wright. When I look at other people’s work I don’t look at it to see how close it is to mine. I look at it to see if I feel that they understand what they are doing. I can appreciate that even if it’s not something I would do.