Q & A with architect Chad Oppenheim

Chad Oppenheim and his firm were pioneers in shaping Miami’s residential market with high-design buildings with features like rooftop gardens, innovative floor plans and swimming pools, the most prominent being Ten Museum Park in Downtown Miami. The architect, based in his Design District office, now designs buildings worldwide, including upcoming projects in Switzerland, Greece, Los Angeles and the Middle East. Oppenheim talked with The Real Deal about his influence on Miami’s residential towers, how the downturn has affected architecture, and his optimistic vision for the future of Miami.

How would you describe your career in Miami?
We’re always looking to do more and better things. We’ve really been very fortunate to be in Miami at the right place at the right time, and certainly capitalize on Miami as a cultural and artistic center of a place people look to for ideas, for influence. I’m probably the biggest lover of Miami. I grew up in New Jersey, so that probably explains why I love Miami so much.

What projects are you working on right now?
We’re working on a renovation to a museum in Miami Beach. I can’t give it out yet, as it’s kind of under the radar at the moment. We’re also working on a renovation of a really special hotel on Miami Beach, once again confidential. We’re also doing a house in Coral Gables. We’re doing a lot of work in China, in the Philippines, couple of projects in Europe, in Switzerland and Greece.

How has your work changed?
Our work has definitely evolved from the beginning, when we first did the Ilona project in [in 2002, on Jefferson Avenue in Miami Beach]. We always keep the ideas that we had and were developing, continued to develop but then add other things to that mix, and other things that we think are relevant to a particular time. So, for instance, we designed one building called Cor couple of years back, and it was all about sustainability and making a building that was sensitive to the environment and using the environment to generate power. These days we’re focusing on what our buildings can give back — that they’re not just pretty and beautiful and fun, but they’re actually buildings that will enhance society in some way

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What influence do you think you have you had on Miami’s design and what trends are you seeing?
I would say that what we hoped to inspire was a rekindling of modern sensibility, the idea of creating a high-design for more traditional residential projects. There was some interesting work by Arquitectonica in the 1980s, but by the year 2000, there was not this idea to bring high design to the masses. Maybe you’d have it in a house. But our objective was to bring this new sensibility about lifestyle, about the possibilities, the sex appeal to the buildings, that I think was missing.

Can Miami become a new New York?
I think Miami as a whole is one of the most incredible places to live in the world, and I think it has such an amazing future. Miami is in my mind like a mixture of New York and L.A. There are the sensibilities of both place — the lifestyle from L.A. and the kind of urban edginess from New York. It’s sort of a melting pot of culture and lifestyle.

Do you find any neighborhoods particularly interesting architecturally?
Unfortunately there’s been a demolition of some beautiful buildings on Biscayne Boulevard. But any city has its historical challenges. Definitely the Design District, and I think that area has had some increasing activity in restaurants and shops. We’ve done some art galleries in Wynwood, and we think that area has a lot of interesting possibilities. That’s a very interesting, edgy area that is certainly up and coming.
I also love Downtown Miami, the heart of downtown Miami. Everyone always looks at the water, on Biscayne. But the center, Flagler Street, all of those areas, are phenomenal. Downtown Miami is my favorite area, it has so much potential.

How has the downturn affected building?
Everyone is a lot more cautious and tight with money. Other than that, there’s a lot less building, and a lot of architecture firms that have reduced 70 percent of their staff, even 80 to 90 percent. We never wanted to be a large firm, and I think we’re one of the larger architectural firms in Miami, just by being able to survive and have projects out of Miami. But there’s a struggle; the type of frenzy that was going on before is no longer going on, it’s more restrained locally.

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