All posts by Jim Childress

About Jim Childress

Jim Childress, FAIA, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1977 and 1978 respectively. Selected as one of the decade’s “40 National Architects under 40” by the Architectural League of New York, he has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Eidgenossiche–Techniche Hochschule in Switzerland. He is one of four partners at Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Centerbrook, Connecticut.

Norway-A Goldmine of Architecture

Dalaker/Galta, Farmhouse, Knut Hjeltnes
Dalaker/Galta, Farmhouse, Knut Hjeltnes, Photo by Tom Rossiter

This article originally appeared in Norwegian, on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s website

I am the 2015 Chair of the American Institute of Architects Committee On Design (AIA-COD). COD’s mission is to promote design excellence among our members, the broader design community, and the public at large, both nationally and internationally. Every year we organize two conferences, one inside the United States and one internationally, to discover new design in different places. Our itineraries include visiting historical structures, looking at details such as furniture, landscapes and learning about urban planning, although we mostly visit buildings–all kinds of buildings because COD members design everything from houses to skyscrapers, churches, museums, universities, hospitals and airports, to name a few.

Søreide School, Asplan Viak
Søreide School, Asplan Viak
Borgund Stave Church, Photo by Derek Hayn
Borgund Stave Church, Photo by Derek Hayn
Oslo Opera House, Snøhetta, Photo by Derek Hayn
Oslo Opera House, Snøhetta, Photo by Derek Hayn
Hedmark Museum, Sverre Fehn, Photo by Derek Hayn
Hedmark Museum, Sverre Fehn, Photo by Derek Hayn

In June we held a nine-day ‘sold-out’ conference to visit and explore Norwegian architecture designed by Norwegian architects. Through our own research, and help from Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund, we set an itinerary to visit some the most influential architecture in Oslo, Bergen, and Stavanger. We visited highlights of historical architecture, (the Hedmark Museum, a Stave Church, the Oslo Town Hall, a preserved farm with Jæren houses) but our primary aim was to learn from local architects by visiting their new projects.

Our guidebook can be found on the AIA-COD website.

Aurland Lookout, Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen, Photo by Derek Hayn
Aurland Lookout, Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen, Photo by Derek Hayn

Why did we go to Norway?

What’s so special about Norwegian architecture and architects?

Continue reading Norway-A Goldmine of Architecture

A Breath of Fresh Air from Winnipeg


Last Friday Johanna Hurme from 5468796 Architecture spoke at the Centerbrook Architects Lecture Series at the Essex Library, with support from her partner Sasa Radulovic. It was a very entertaining talk full of ideas, inspiration, and humor.

They are from Winnipeg: who knew such fantastic architecture was coming out of central Canada. They are finding ways to make simple things, such as a bandstand, modest housing, special.


If you have not heard of them, you will. Their work is tremendous, and their advocacy for good design is making a difference. We were honored to learn from them.

Check them out at

Architecture Series Rising Six


There are no car chases or gunplay, of course, in illustrated presentations on design; nonetheless, the Centerbrook Architects Lecture Series has been filling the seats now for five years. The cast has included a Nobel Laureate, an acclaimed landscape designer who thinks – no, he knows – that flowers and lawns are overrated, and a pioneering woman architect whose work appeared prominently each week on Hawaii Five-O (the original).

These sociable conclaves are not about fixing screens or creaky stairs, but rather Architecture with a capital A: major trends, design history and innovation, iconic buildings, glorious places.

Rafael Pelli talked about making skyscrapers sustainable; another architect (and author) Duo Dickinson discussed repositioning one’s humble abode for the Golden Years. Our partner emeritus, Bill Grover, mulled over color, period. A professor addressed the creative process itself: how new ideas and approaches are born and nurtured. Fear not, there were ruminations on Palladio and Gaudi, cities and parks, monuments and follies. Who knew architecture could be so much fun.

The series, which begins its sixth season this fall, is a collaboration between Centerbrook and the Essex Library and was cooked up by my wife Ann Thompson, a librarian, and myself with the support of my three partners. It quickly outgrew the library, attracting as many as 200 people. This year it is being held at the Essex Library, 33 West Avenue. It is one of the most popular of the many engaging programs that the library offers.

The success of the series indicates, I think, that there is more interest in architecture than one might assume. Nobody needs a whit of formal training to know what they like, what buildings and spaces speak to them, whether in overt or subtle ways. We all have places where we feel comfortable, where we like to work or play or just sit, places that somehow manage to take our sensibilities into account.

The reason that people are interested in architecture, I believe, is because it is an important, if often overlooked part of our lives. Studies confirm what we know intuitively: good design makes people healthier, happier, and more productive. Something as simple as natural light widely diffused inside a building can raise spirits and even academic achievement.

Architecture in this new century is also more important than ever for a very practical reason: our buildings produce more greenhouse gas emissions than do all of our cars, trucks and buses. We have to design structures that are at once appealing, efficient, and responsible. The goal is to eventually have all of our buildings “carbon neutral,” i.e. designed to be so efficient they can operate on renewable energy alone.

That said, architecture still can be fun. To see what is in store for our sixth season, please visit our events page.

I hope to see you there.

Aki House – Frozen Music

The original bungalow was renovated first

I don’t think architecture can substitute for a biography but it is possible to use forms, shapes, and details to create a portrait of sorts, architecture that conveys someone’s personality. Working with this client over a period of 15 years, we took a rambling bungalow with a shed in the back yard and tried to weave her personality through the renovated house and music studio.

The original house was a simple bungalow and rather dark.
The original house was a simple bungalow and rather dark.

Over time we tinkered here, we adapted there. We solved the common problems, like getting more natural light and fixing a collapsing roof. But to make the place special we sought inspiration from the southern New England setting, our client’s Japanese heritage, her interest in wood, and her experience as a world class violinist and professor of music at Yale University.

Using a specific shape or detail to suggest abstract ideas such as nature, music, and someone’s roots, is difficult, seldom will everyone read it the same way. I doubt “the pickle” is the idea the architects were trying to suggest for the recently completed high rise office building in London. However, we have tried here through a combination of shapes, details, and materials to convey the joy of nature and music as well as conjure up a feeling of being in New England – with a whisper of Japan. Our goal was to create a visual version of a musical concerto. Continue reading Aki House – Frozen Music

Thoughts on Japanese Architecture

My wife, Ann Thompson, and I spent a week last fall exploring Tokyo and environs while attending the conference of the American Institute of Architects Committee on Design in Japan. In our official capacities as Communication Chair and Web Tender for the Committee, we were privileged not only to enjoy the architecture of the city but also to hear the likes of Fumihiko Maki discuss his work. Professor Masami Kobayashi of Meiji University chronicled the history of Tokyo’s built environment and the role that architects are playing in the reconstruction efforts following last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Here is a link to the posts we wrote for the Committee on Design website.:

Designing for a New Age of Discovery

Albert Einstein was 26 when he published his “Special Theory of Relativity.”  James D. Watson was 25 when he and Francis Crick discovered the architecture of DNA, arguably the greatest scientific achievement of our lifetime.  Steve Jobs, another early bloomer, believed that you couldn’t trust people over 30 to come up with radical innovations.

Working for decades with Nobel Laureate Jim Watson and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on developing that renowned research campus, I also have learned that the road to scientific achievement is not a straight line between two points, but rather a meandering, eclectic journey that should encompass the arts and humanities, interdisciplinary collaboration and sociability, and even sports and outdoor pastimes, such as bird watching.  Now in his 80s, Watson still plays a mean game of tennis. Science does not thrive in a sterile vacuum: the broader the interests of the inquisitor the better. Continue reading Designing for a New Age of Discovery

The Best Laid Plans…

Center for Community, University of Colorado Boulder, Photo by Casey A. Cass

Anyone who has remodeled a bathroom, or even a broom closet, knows that building projects tend not to proceed as planned. Surprises are common, and the work can take longer and cost more than expected – if one is not vigilant. Even when the execution goes smoothly, sometimes the basic concept is flawed: for example, the outdoor hot tub that nobody uses after the first month due to the resident black fly population and the astronomical electric bill.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned with the Center for Community (C4C) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which is home to nearly 30,000 students. At more than 300,000 square feet, the new building is much larger than a broom closet and was designed to foster community on a sprawling campus among students, faculty and staff, and even individuals from the surrounding towns. That was the plan, anyway. Continue reading The Best Laid Plans…

Watson and Grover Pack the House

It was standing room only as Nobel Laureate Dr. James Watson and award winning architect William Grover, FAIA, explored their 36-year collaboration developing and improving the renowned research campus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. The pair’s presentation, part of the Essex Library’s Centerbrook Architects Lecture Series, drew some 200 people to the Essex Meadows Auditorium last month.

As with any solid long term relationship, there were moments of tension through the years. “Bill, I never wanted to fire you,” Dr. Watson averred somewhat backhandedly to Centerbrook’s Partner Emeritus. “That’s not my recollection, Jim,” Mr. Grover replied, smiling. Most often, however, the pair concurred on what represented good architecture that was conducive to scientific inquiry into the causes of cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses.

The campus they worked to create over four decades is the antithesis of a large, boxy, factory laboratory setting bristling with characterless buildings, macadam, and white-coated drones. It is a Village for Science, with intimate spaces indoors and out so researchers can bump into one another, conspire, perambulate, gossip, bird-watch, or meditate. One might mistake Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a small, private day school or, as The New York Times reviewer saw it, a miniature Bavarian hilltop village.

Dr. Watson told the 200 people in attendance how he felt about the place where he has lived and worked since 1968, “I often think how lucky I am to be there.”

Architecture for a Dream Client

Bill Grover and Jim Watson (Nobel Laureate Dr. James D. Watson to the world at large) are not exactly the odd couple, but they clearly are distinct from one another. One is an architect, the other a scientist. One is patient; one less so. Bill is calm and speaks softly; Jim can be a bit more flamboyant – albeit all in a good cause.

That cause, architecture in the service of science, is the subject the duo’s upcoming presentation for the Centerbrook Architecture Series hosted by the Essex Library on November 11.

Bill Grover, 1987
James D. Watson with double helix

Bill is a founding partner of Centerbrook, which the American Institute of Architects determined in 1998 was the best in the land. Bill captured dozens of awards for his work and was reviewed by The New York Times, among others. Jim co-discovered the architecture of DNA in 1953 at age 25, jumpstarting an entire new era of scientific inquiry that continues unabated today. The past Director of the Genome Project, Jim is arguably America’s greatest living scientist.

Together, starting in 1973, Bill and Jim transformed Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s 115-acre campus on Long Island, shaping it gradually over four decades like a couple of sculptors working in malleable clay. Once little more than a sleepy summer camp, today it is a bustling, internationally acclaimed research facility where thousands of scientists and students make an annual pilgrimage. More than 400 resident scientists are trying to find the causes and improved treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc. Continue reading Architecture for a Dream Client

Those Bright (Gourmet) College Years

Sushi Bar at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Center for Community

I never walked five miles to school in a blizzard, but I did ingest my share of character-building cafeteria food while a dyspeptic, cholesterol-ridden scholar.  Remember the latex cheese on those academic burgers that clung like Crazy Glue to the bun, rather than to the patty?  Or the mystery meat enclosed in Plaster of Paris dough?

Times have changed.  At the Tuscan-motif Marketplace at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s new Center for Community, featuring 12 “Micro-Restaurants,” students can choose between sushi hand-rolled before their eyes, Persian delights, burritos topped with pineapple-cilantro salsa, Brazilian or Italian specialties, old standbys like pizza and apple pie, and much more.  Each of the restaurants has its own distinctive design and character as well as staff.  One of the dozen eateries is devoted to desserts.

There are options, too, for vegetarians and diners with food allergies.  Chefs not only make custom dishes but show, transparently, their customers how they do it.  Culinary masters from area restaurants are invited in to make their Spécialités de la Maison.  Homesick students can bring in a favorite family recipe and have a cook whip it up for them, on the spot.  You can design your own pasta dish or omelet.

Not all the delights are gustatory: For example, the Italian food station is tricked out in a Vespa Scooter theme, while the Grotto’s ceiling displays an ever-changing light show.

Clearly, I was born way too early. Continue reading Those Bright (Gourmet) College Years