Robert Oshatz extended interview

Robert Oshtaz designs unique residential and commercial buildings. The floating home he designed for Randy Fennell and Kazuyo Tojo on the Willamette River seems to be part of the water. A house he designed for another client appears to echo the trees around it. We talked to him about his design process. Questions and answers edited for clarity and brevity.

Q.  What is the process when a client comes to you for a design?

A.  Each design is a one-of-a-kind. You’re not reinventing the wheel, but people come to you because they want something they can live in and don’t have to adapt to. They want the building adapted to them.

We talk. You don’t want to put preconceived ideas in their heads, so you don’t show them things.  They might not be thinking of a bedroom with four walls. It might be in their dreams or fantasies to have a pod floating in a garden.

I ask them what they want to do in the space. They have to be able to eat, sleep, cook, entertain, and you need shelter for things. I ask them about colors and textures they like, and what their feelings are about relationships between interior and exterior space.  You’ll get even mundane things. Do you sleep in a king size bed or a queen size bed?  You don’t come in and say; the room will be this size and the windows will face this way.  You ask them if they like soft flowing lines or straight angular lines. Then you have to ask about budget.  And you have to design a structure that fits the budget so that it doesn’t become a burden. As you start giving them drawings and you think about ideas, and it starts to build together.

Many people start out giving clients three or four rough sketches and say, choose one. That, to me, says the architect is afraid to make a commitment. Or maybe the client will choose the worst of the five sketches. You should give them the best of what you can give them.

Q And if they don’t like it?

A.  I’d think I didn’t listen to them carefully.

When a client comes to you to interview for a job, you are interviewing them at the same time to see if you can work together. You have to make sure that you work together as a team.  My job is not to “educate” them, and say “I took them as far as I can take them and that’s it.”  My job is to discover where they want to go and see if that is where I want to go. The client is the reason for the project.

Did you ever take a literature class where you read the novel, and then go into class and have a discussion on the novel, and you start to see all these viewpoints, and you always want to reread the book?  (Clients) give you your ideas to start with, and that leads to something else, and that leads to something else.  Then I start to show them the internal sketches.

Q. Internal sketches?

A. I always design my pieces from the inside out. Many of the places never have exterior drawings.  One builder kept asking me for an exterior drawing. I told him there wasn’t any. And there wouldn’t be any. And he should just build it and he’d see (the exterior) at the end.

Q. That has to be difficult for the builder.

A. The clients have put a lot of trust into what I’m doing. I can give the clients as many drawings as they need to see what the house looks like from the inside and the outside, but not the builders. It’s hard for me to understand how you could not design from the inside out because the building should adapt and develop. The structure should adapt to the clients’ way of thinking.

If you started with a preconceived idea of what the building should look like you would have a limited ability to solve the problems that the client is presenting to you. Say a client says they’d like to wake up in the morning and see this beautiful tree on the West end of the property. But if the architect would say, I better put the bedroom on the West end of the property (to accommodate the client’s wish) that’s going to be the hottest part of the structure in the evening in the summer.  Maybe the architect would say, to heck with it, and air condition the room. Before you solve that particular problem, ask if the client wants to wake up with sun hitting their eyes. They might say, I’d like wake up to direct sunlight and stretch and say it’s great to be alive. How are you going to give them Eastern light and a Western view at the same time? The job of the architect is not to say they have to choose, but to solve this problem in a beautiful way. If I had a preconceived notion, it would be hard to solve that problem.

Or maybe you have a vase that was the first present your children ever gave to you as an anniversary present. So you could design an alcove so that the sun would hit the shelf with the vase at that exact hour of the day when you got married.

Q.  That sounds a bit like one of the Caves of Kesh in Ireland where the entrance is aligned so that the winter solstice sunset hits just so once a year. Have you actually designed a house like that?

A. No. But there is no reason why you can’t do that in a house if people would ask for it.  I always ask people if there is something important to them. They might say, we love to have the morning sun when having our first cup of coffee.

Q. You work on your own. Do you have a group of architect friends to talk over ideas?

A. I don’t know too many architects. I just kind of ended up having friends who are painters or sculptors or different things. All day long I’m working at my craft and, at the end of the day, I like talking to people who are doing something else.


{besps_c}0|01.jpg|The glass front of the floating home by Porland architect Robert Oshatz reflects the Willamette River and seems to become a part of it as the sunlight moves throughout the day.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|02.jpg|From the dock, the shape of this unique floating home belonging to Randy Fennell and Kazuyo Tojo suggests a ship or a conch shell.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|03.jpg|Curved beams along the South side of the home create a dramatic – and practical – covered entrance.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|04.jpg|Rounded windows frame the river like an aquarium.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|05.jpg|More than just a pretty face, the floating house is the perfect soothing space for the attorney/television producer and political activist who call it home.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|06.jpg|The curves of the ceiling, said Oshatz, were inspired by ripples of water.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|07.jpg|The stairway near the riverbank side of the house, seems to cascade.| {/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|08.jpg|The home owners worked closely with the architect through almost four years of planning, design, redesign and building the floating home with its loft-like master bedroom.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|09.jpg|Built-ins throughout the house, including seating beside the bath, keep rooms clean and uncluttered while the rich tones of natural wood warm it up.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|10.jpg|The upstairs bathroom enjoys water views and privacy high above river traffic.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}
{besps_c}0|11.jpg|People who live in glass houses are lucky to have only fish, boats and the occasional sea lion as neighbors.|PHOTO CAMERON NEILSON{/besps_c}