The small summer house in Connecticut Bohlin designed for his parents, published in The New York Times in 1976, is still a prime example of the ethic that defines the firm's work. The long, slim house is set narrow side to the road, at a point in the forest where dark evergreens give way to a sunny deciduous landscape. It's clad in cedar, stained green to match the trees. A carefully orchestrated entrance sequence, marked by a series of red landmarks, progresses along a bridge, down some steps to a breezeway, then into a small vestibule. Ahead is the two-story living room, its huge, gridded, industrial corner windows playing off the leafy views. In the sunken living room, a spare fireplace and built-in seating evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's warm, orderly interiors. The Times described the house as at once artistic and practical, airy and anchored to earth. And this sensibility has been remarkably consistent in Bohlin's work ever since. Whatever the size or purpose, he designs buildings that delight people and bring out the subtleties of their surroundings.
Bohlin's love for the land traces back to childhood summers spent in Connecticut, near the future summer house. "I was a fisherman, and developed a kind of empathy with the trout, where and how they would be moving," he says. "I began to understand the nature of the place—its sense of life, a sense of the breeze. I think making terrific places, whether houses or larger buildings, has everything to do with the way we relate to those places. We try to fuel that web of connections that centers around people, whether the site is in the city or country."
Bohlin had a chance to develop those ideas at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he did his undergraduate work, and while completing a master's at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. And rather than being lured by big city lights, he chose to return to Wilkes-Barre, where his parents lived. "I saw Wilkes-Barre as a way to get out and do buildings immediately," he says.
BCJ is still headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, where Bohlin lives. Although only Peter Bohlin, Bernard Cywinski, FAIA, and Jon Jackson, AIA, show up in the firm's name, there are eight partners. The other five—Dan Haden, AIA; Frank Grauman, AIA; Cornelius Reid, AIA; Russell Roberts, AIA; and William Loose, AIA—are scattered between headquarters and offices in Philadelphia, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Berkeley, Calif. Cywinski describes the 100-person firm as "an archipelago" rather than a main office with branches. "You can't define one office by itself," he says. "The whole sharing of experience between all the offices is what I think gives the richness to the architecture. We have a built-in peer review opportunity."
The setup fosters a warm, egalitarian environment that makes attrition virtually nonexistent. "There's a certain energy in the everyday of this office that inspires people to keep getting better at what they do," Cywinski says. And, in the crossover of work based in other offices, a more global view emerges on how to see a problem. The East Coast offices, for example, often get a heads-up on technologies in experimental stages on the West Coast.