Bainbridge architect receives an unexpected award and shares a valuable lesson in parenthood

If you haven’t heard about the National Academy, it’s OK — neither had Jim Cutler, the venerable island architect who was inducted into it last month.

Jim Cutler (right) sits with his wife

If you haven’t heard about the National Academy, it’s OK — neither had Jim Cutler, the venerable island architect who was inducted into it last month.

“I got an email from a radio talk show guy in North Carolina that I met once,” Cutler said. “And it was, ‘Congratulations on your election to the National Academy.’

“At first I thought I kind of won Publishers Clearing House,” he said, laughing. “I had no idea. I don’t follow things all that well.”

But with his curiosity piqued, Cutler inquired further. “What is that?” he wrote back.

Surprised, the radio host told Cutler he better contact the Academy.

An email, a phone call — and Cutler heard nothing.

Until he did. They wanted to know if he was coming to the reception. He asked around the office and found a brochure sitting under a pile.

And suddenly he was crying.

Cutler has won many awards in the 33 years since he built his design firm, Cutler-Anderson Architects, out of an old boat hall adjacent to Pegasus Coffee.

He’s received six national AIAs — “the Academy Award of Architecture” he calls them; there are just 12 recipients every year — for projects as varied as a suburban library, a 1,350-square-foot cabin and a tercentenary memorial.

Then last year, his remodel of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, his first high rise, was named the best tall building in the Western Hemisphere.

It was a big deal to a man who has been typecast for designing “great little finely crafted houses.”

But for Cutler, the election to the National Academy was on a different plane entirely. He hadn’t done anything to solicit it; he hadn’t submitted his work for consideration, as is the practice with juried competitions. Somebody had simply noticed and admired his work from afar.

As he flipped through the brochure, Cutler was blown away by the names of all the greats whose ranks he’d be joining.

John Singer Sargent. Winslow Homer. I.M. Pei. Frank Gehry. Two thousand of the nation’s finest architects and artists.

“I was just overwhelmed,” he said. “I was literally in tears. I just couldn’t believe that the work I’d done during my life, anybody would recognize.”

Cutler and his wife, Beth Wheeler, flew out for the reception held on Oct. 27 at the Academy’s home in New York City.

When he arrived, a fellow Academician, painter Margaret Grimes, immediately grabbed him.

“I just want to let you know how much we love your work,” she told the architect.

Cutler didn’t know what she was talking about. “We?” he asked.

“The painters!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the architects always elect these guys who do cold, rational work and your stuff is so warm and emotional that we elected you, all the painters,” Grimes said.

Cutler was elated by her description.

“That’s always been my search; to find the thing that touches you,” he explained.

“A lot of our work has to do with choreographing people through what I love — forests, living systems.And we choreograph every step of the path to the building, every bit of the drive, every step to the front door, the front door when it opens, what you see out of the building. All of those things are designed to elicit emotional responses about how wonderful it is to be living on this planet.”

After the reception, Cutler rushed back home to be with Hannah, his youngest of four daughters.

They share a 10-foot desk in the playroom, from which Cutler does most of his drawing.

It’s a convenient arrangement, perhaps, but more likely an intentional one, born out of a desire to maximize his time with her.

Because, at 66, as much as Cutler relishes natural landscapes and big awards and the challenges of his work, he’s learned that the real wonder comes at home, with his family.

“Parents are all rookies and they’re coping from one minute to the next and they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to recover their ‘real life,’” Cutler observed.

“Well, kids are the real life. You don’t get that when you’re in the middle of that. But I got that and now I get to do that the right way with this one.”

 

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