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Editor Chad Oppenheim presents new book 'Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains'. Here's an exclusive interview with the architect Oppenheim.

Step into architect Chad Oppenheim’s ‘Lair’ with his book on villainous HQs

Editor Chad Oppenheim presents Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains. Chad Oppenheim is a Miami-based architect whose work has been praised for its ability to transform the prosaic into the poetic. 

A graduate of Cornell University and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Oppenheim has lectured widely and has taught at several architecture schools, including Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. 

In 1999, Oppenheim founded Oppenheim Architecture (Miami, Basel, New York), which has garnered global recognition for large-scale urban architecture, hotels and resorts, private residences, interiors, and furnishings.

Oppenheim Architecture has received more than seventy industry awards and distinctions, including the Silver Medal for Design, the highest distinction bestowed by the Miami Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the Cooper Hewitt 2018 National Design Award. 

The firm’s work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including the New York Times and Architectural Record; a monograph on the firm, Spirit of Place (Tra Publishing), was published in 2018.

Here’s what Chad Oppenheim said about his latest book: “Lair includes interviews with several production designers, directors, and other film industry professionals. It is fascinating to hear from people like Ralph Eggleston, Mark Digby, David Scheunemann, Roger Christian, Richard Donner, and Gregg Henry. 

“We have also included an interview with the late architect John Lautner, another source of great inspiration to me, and it seems to Hollywood—his houses have made appearances as villains’ lairs in many movies.”

Here’s our exclusive interview with architect and co-editor of Lair, Chad Oppenheim.

Tell us about your career history. How did you start your journey?

When I was young, I used to draw cars. Then, when I was seven, my parents decided to build a house, and I ended up working with them around the table at night. I was drawing houses, coming up with cool ideas. It was amazing. And that was it. 

I started formally working in architecture offices in high school. I grew up in New Jersey, so I worked in an office there. Then I went to college at Cornell. After that I worked in several countries. I spent time in Rome, Japan, Spain, and Portugal. I moved to Miami in 1995 and started my practice, Oppenheim Architecture, in 2000. 

Who are your current influences?

I am inspired by artists even more than architects in certain ways. And especially by land art. Some of the artists who most inspire me are James Turrell, Richard Serra, and Michael Heizer. I’m especially inspired and I think influenced by the way that their art engages with nature and landscape and sky. 

What was the one movie you saw that made you want to create this book?

The Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun. I was seven years old when I saw it, and I was fascinated by Scaramanga’s lair, which is carved into the limestone cliffs of a very remote island. It was the most incredible hideout, and I was fascinated. That movie has inspired my work as an architect, and I feel that it led directly to this book. 

How was working on Lair? What did you learn from the experience?

Well, I learned that I was right – a lot of movie villains live in amazing places. And in studying these lairs, I saw even more strongly the ways in which some of them have influenced my design aesthetic. It was an interesting process because having the concept was only the beginning. Then we had to make it into a book. 

Choosing the films to include was challenging in certain ways, because some of the houses I love in film and wanted to include were ruled out because of our criteria – there had to be villains, of course, and it had to be a film that was a strong enough film so that people would care about it. 

Tell us about your career and how it relates to film.

What we’re crafting as architects are experiences. Those experiences are like scenes that are created for a movie. I believe our work is very cinematic, and I compare it to fully immersive cinema. We are going for drama, suspense, and pleasure. We are crafting spaces that we feel will create emotional responses. 

Where did the concept come from for Lair?

As mentioned, it started with The Man with the Golden Gun, but then I went on to see the other Bond films, which of course are known for their over-the-top villains’ lairs, and then so many other major movies – Superman, Star Wars – these guys know how to live. 

With Lair, we focused primarily on modern architecture, and on lairs that I find architectural inspiring, and that I’d want to live in. We’ve joked that I was so taken by the Bond movies that I was going to become either a villain or an architect. Looking back, in certain ways the concept for Lair was in my head for decades before it made it onto the page. 

What music inspires you to create?

I spend a lot of time creating to the Beastie Boys. Throughout school I listened to them. I find their work very inspiring. It is very contextual to what is going on in their lives. There are layers, there is collage, it’s very personal and emotive. I just finished reading Beastie Boys Book. It is pretty amazing to get behind the scenes. 

Talk us through your creative process.

It’s a very arduous and intensive process. We come up with the ideas and experiences and feelings that we want to communicate, what we want to accomplish, and then we try to figure out how to mesh the project with the site. We have many objectives – it’s like a checklist. 

Then we embark on a journey of discovery and of testing. We test every permutation we can to uncover truths and to accomplish our objectives. It’s a lengthy and nonlinear process, and we never know where will wind up. 

Our constant objectives are for our buildings to become part of landscape, to make them utilizing local materials, and for the buildings to kind of disappear into the landscape, to be silent yet monumental and to create incredible pleasure and delight. 

What tips do you have for new creatives?

In any creative endeavor, it is about understanding what gives you the passion and being true to that. Follow your passion and listen to your heart and not just your brain. That’s probably the most important thing. 

What part of creativity do you geek out about the most?

It is more like hippie out. It’s being immersed in nature and being in awe of nature and how we can connect in more meaningful ways and amplify the beauty that we take for granted. 

It’s a realization that developed over time of, hey, we have to really take care of this planet that we love so much. In our firm, we like to say form follows feeling. And that includes engaging with all of the senses (the feeling part), and then creating the work.

You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?

Yes, that’s true that I am very hands-on. It’s definitely challenging. We have a great team. We work together to extract these ideas that are mostly in my head. Architecture is a team sport, and takes a lot of incredibly talented people to work together in harmony and synchronicity to get the ultimate results. 

It’s a very complicated business in that it combines art and science and math and regulations. So as a collective, we wear a lot of hats. There are a lot of layers to the work.

If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?

That’s a good question. I think it would be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’ve probably watched it more than any other film. It’s interesting in its journey and it has this kind of boyish sense of wonder and excitement and drama. I don’t know if it’s my favorite movie, but it is really enjoyable to watch. 

I wanted to include a house from it in Lair – Cameron’s house, which was designed by the architect A. James Speyer and is called the Ben Rose House – but the problem was that I couldn’t make a strong enough case for Cameron’s father being a villain. No one else agreed with me. 

What’s your next project?

We are working right now on a really cool lair – it’s more of a resort but it’s kind of like a lair. We’re building it in the rocks, in the mountains in an undisclosed location. We are totally applying lessons from the book – we’re channeling a lot of Ken Adam and John Lautner. 

Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?

Interestingly enough, I have not. I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always been searching but I never really had the luck or the benefit of that. There are people who influence you, of course. But a mentor is someone who kind of guides you through. Perhaps the closest for me would be Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead. I try to read that text every couple of years to make sure I am staying on track. 

In terms of finding mentors, my advice would be to reach out to people you admire. See if you can shadow them. 

What has been your biggest failure?

I don’t know, exactly. But contextually as an architect a lot of what you dream up doesn’t come to fruition. That is not necessarily a failure, but it is a disappointment that things that you’ve birthed don’t come to full life. Most of the time it’s not really in your power. In a way it’s a miracle when anything actually happens. 

What’s your creative mission? 

To make the world a better place. To connect people with nature and to each other. We are the most connected species yet we are so disconnected from the world around us and from each other. So anything we can do to foster connections and amplify them is our mission. 

Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when looking at your work? 

That connection I just mentioned. The visceral power and tranquility of nature. We live such frantic lives. Our goal is that a space or an experience we create can nurture people and give them pleasure and moments to engage with the beauty that surrounds them. 

What has been your biggest success?

My kids. My family. 

What’s your five-year plan?

God willing, to bring to reality many of our dreams. 

What creatives should be on our radar?

I vote for Carlos Fueyo, creative director of playard studios, who created the amazing architectural illustrations and renderings in Lair. He trained as an architect and then worked in visual effects in Hollywood on many major films, and he’s just founded his own studio. We were incredibly lucky to have him on our team for the book. He’s immensely talented.

What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?

Isle of Dogs by Wes Anderson is an incredible work of cinematic art. It’s flawless. It’s very immersive and it brings you to another place. 

Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
That’s a good question. I would say the Beastie Boys.

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