the large and the small

The Gates assignment certainly deepened the entire firm's intellectual base on many different levels. It gave the architects the opportunity to research materials, such as the technology of building in timber.

"We also had to figure out how to make a sprawling compound livable for two to five people, and how the computer would take its place in the house," Cywinski says. "You don't see one wire; there's nothing to give you a clue that this is the most technologically sophisticated house in the world."

At the new Liberty Bell pavilion on the redesigned Independence Mall in Philadelphia—another hot commission—BCJ faces the issues of public vs. private space on a much larger scale. "We're placing a tiny object—a bell—in an environment of three very large city blocks," Cywinski says. "How do you give the bell an honorific place but also an independent scale for when the human encounters the bell?"

"We all learn from doing houses," he adds. "They force you to think at that intimate scale for all projects, no matter how large they are."

The challenge is different at Pixar—Apple CEO Steve Jobs' animation and special effects studio that created "A Bug's Life" and the "Toy Story" movies—in Emeryville, Calif. There, the architects need to design for rapidly changing high-tech systems. They also need to create a balanced environment for the workers who inhabit the space.

"The computer is very one-on-one," Cywinski says. "You have to overcome that introversion with spaces that are more social. You can't drain the energy on one end and not recharge it."

abiding passion

Collaborating with his staff is one way Bohlin charges up his own energy, and he's quick to acknowledge the talents of those around him. "No architect does it alone," he says. "The truth is, I have great partners and terrific people within our practice. We've chosen each other."

Natural talent notwithstanding, Bohlin has honed an evenhanded repertoire of skills crucial to succeeding in his profession. Says Cutler: "In a lot of ways he's extremely practical, but visually he's exuberant. And he's a very savvy guy. You have to be able to schmooze people, be passionate, count numbers, and make budgets. Peter has all those traits."

Where do you go after you've been the architect for the richest man in America? Bohlin wants to continue an experiment the team began at the Gates compound: trying to reveal the nature of building materials by layering them. "Reading a costly material in front of a less expensive one implies it goes on, but it may not," he explains. "The idea has uses for larger buildings for economic as well as psychological reasons." He also looks forward to designing a house almost entirely of composite materials, and expressing them instead of hiding them.

For now, Bohlin is reveling in learning from each new client and site. "I think we're on a roll as far as having wonderful opportunities to build in many environments and circumstances, from the Bell pavilion, to firms such as Pixar, to houses on interesting sites for interesting people," Bohlin says. "I'm so tickled we have that range."

Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer in Severna Park, Md.