Much more than luck: Bainbridge architect is Medal of Honor winner

James Cutler of Bainbridge Island has been named the Medal of Honor winner of 2012 for AIA Seattle, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  - Photo courtesy of Cutler Anderson Architects
James Cutler of Bainbridge Island has been named the Medal of Honor winner of 2012 for AIA Seattle, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Cutler Anderson Architects

Sometimes the simple things can bring a visionary to tears.

It’s that way with James Cutler, and he’s the first to admit it.

Cutler, a Bainbridge Island resident, has been named the Medal of Honor winner of 2012 for AIA Seattle, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

It’s not any award, however, that makes Cutler misty-eyed. Instead, it’s this wonderful world around us and the spectacle of beauty that inspires and informs his work as an architect.

His great award? Well, that’s more of a surprise.

It’s a huge honor, he said, but an “odd thing.”

“They called it a lifetime achievement award. I’ve only started to get this whole business down in the last few years,” Cutler said.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’ve only just begun to exercise the skills I’ve acquired,’” he said.

The acknowledgement, he said, seems like “one of those best of albums.”

“Well, his time is over, might as well give him an award,” Cutler quipped.

“I’m still honored,” he quickly added.

“For an architect, I’m pretty young. I’ve never heard of a really great architect under 60. And I’m 62.”

Cutler is the founding partner of Cutler Anderson Architects. During the firm’s 35-year history, it has received six National American Institute of Architects Honor Awards, plus more than 45 national, regional and local awards.

Officials at the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects said Cutler Anderson Architects is known across the country — and the world — for its focus on designing and detailing buildings that fit seamlessly into their contexts.

Cutler, though, said he is still learning on the job.

Architecture is a generalist profession, he explained, where you have to know a lot, about a lot of different things. That knowledge covers a wide gamut of mechanical and human processes.

“And so on normal day in my life, at one point I’m talking to a client or one of my staff about the nature or a place on this planet, and 45 seconds later I’m explaining to some staff person how a toilet flushes and where the water has to go,” he said.

“I need to understand what the most efficient way of having an idea that can be horrendously romantic and at the same time, to be able to be affordable.

“All of those things take a long time to learn and even to a longer point to have mastered,” he said.

It’s only been in the past four or five years, Cutler said, that he feels he’s mastered every bit of the business.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t have lots and lots to learn. I still make mistakes on every job,” he added.

But that’s not a bad thing.

“Since our wisdom grows, the sum total of all our mistakes and what we have learned from them, you do get wiser after a while in this business.”

Culter didn’t set out to be an architect.

He was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in a first-generation American family. His father, a Russian immigrant, was a manager in a small department store.

In college, at the University of Pennsylvania, Cutler studied to become a physical anthropologist.

He was sitting in an art history lecture, a survey class that touched on a little bit of everything, when the subject of Gothic architecture came up.

The sophomore sat up, and did more than take notice.

“I was so inspired by the lecture that I walked out of the lecture and switched majors on the spot that day,” he recalled.

There’s three people who deserve credit for the award, Cutler said.

The first: fellow architect Bruce Anderson.

“Who has just been, I’d say, a perfect partner. And incredibly helpful, incredibly bright. Smarter than me; just the best,” Cutler said.

The second: his instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, Louis I. Kahn.

Kahn, one of the premier architects and one of the greatest teachers of the

20th century, gave Cutler one of the 20 coveted spots in his master’s class. There had been a thousand applicants.

Cutler recalled his good fortune at the time, and his “quite poor” Appalachian coal town roots.

“I thought if I got a master’s from him, that would add another $1,000 to my paycheck.

“That’s the way you are, when you are young and poor,” Cutler said.

The influence and impact was much more immeasurable, however.

“There are places sometimes you hit fertile ground in your life,” Cutler said. “To be in Kahn’s presence was my fertile ground.”

The third to thank, he said, is Peter Bohlin.

Bohlin, another great architect and winner of the 2010 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, gave Cutler a job when he was 20, back in Pennsylvania.

The pair have often worked together since, including their collaboration on Bill Gates' home here in Washington state.

“Peter has been my mentor my whole life,” Cutler said.

“We’re competitors now, but he’s always advised me and been a role model for me. I feel unbelievably fortunate.”

“I couldn’t be a luckier guy. Look what I got: the best possible partner; the best teacher of the 20th century; and I’ve had the best possible mentor for my whole career.”

Cutler has lived on Bainbridge Island since 1974. His first job in Seattle was the restoration project of the Pike Place Market.

Early in his career, he did a lot of residential work on the island, but scaled back as his three kids were growing up.

It was good, he said, because conflicts arise on any construction job, and it was better to not have them close to home.

“If something went wrong on one of my jobs, I could find out about it at T&C about 40 minutes later,” he recalled.

His work now takes him around the country and the world, though there are a number of noteworthy projects still within easy sight on Bainbridge, such as Grace Episcopal Church.

Cutler Anderson Architects is currently designing commercial, institutional and residential projects in Poland, Slovakia, Turkey, Canada and throughout the U.S.

Cutler also has a federal office building under construction in Portand, Ore.

“I’m either going to be the laughing stock of the planet or it’s going to be one of the most renowned high rises in the world,” he said.

Still, homes are where his heart is.

“My main thing are the residences. I just love doing the residences,” he said.

While “green” building continues to rise in popularity, Cutler, who is one of the founders of the Bainbridge Island Land Trust, sees his work as expanding on that concept.

“We are emotionally green. A lot of our work is intended to connect people to the living world through the way we choreograph their eyes as they move toward the building and through the building,” he explained.

These are structures naturally nestled in the landscape.

“Our best buildings are the ones you can’t see,” he said.

His inspiration comes in a word — life.

“If anything inspires me it’s this sort of totally ridiculously romantic love of life,” he said.

There is great beauty in our everyday life, our everyday world and experiences.

“Looking at a new plant growing in the spring almost brings me to tears; I’m a horrible romantic.”

“I want other people to feel that,” he said.

Cutler will be honored with other American Institute of Architects-Seattle winners at a formal dinner June 16 at the Maritime Event Center in Seattle.

Also receiving recognition at the dinner are 2012 AIA College of Fellows inductees Ross Chapin, Jane Hendricks, Lorne McConachie, Robert Miller, David Tomber and Scott Wolf.



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