"What a treat to be an architect!" says Peter Bohlin, FAIA. The charismatic founder of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson has good reason to think so. Once a small practice in the former coal town of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., his firm now has five offices and works with some of the most coveted clients and sites in the country. In the nearly four decades since BCJ began in 1965, it has become renown for an unusually broad and well-received range of work, from a spectacular log house in the mountains of Maryland to a 2,000-square-foot residence in Seattle; from a Girl Scout camp in Pennsylvania to the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1994, Bohlin and partners received the American Institute of Architects' prestigious Architecture Firm Award. And after its coup in the early '90s--the plum commission, with architect James Cutler, to design Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' $60 million mansion--there was no turning back from the rush of public attention.

One recent week found Bohlin crisscrossing the country, jetting between clients in Seattle, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and back to Seattle. But he isn't complaining about his nomadic lifestyle. "We've been lucky to get houses on terrific sites in different parts of the country," he says, ticking off some of his current residential projects. "We're doing a ranch in Montana, a family compound in Rhode Island on beautiful fields stretching between forest and ocean, a summer house on the Michigan peninsula, and a tiny house on the Florida panhandle. I'm involved in all the houses and most of the other buildings. It's a real treat for me."

At 63, Bohlin has reached an exhilarating pinnacle in his career. He can't wait to meet each new client, tape a piece of paper to the drawing board, and, with his trademark intuitive eye, bring a fresh, eclectic perspective to an architectural world he has yet to tire of.

Romancing the Land

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has described Bohlin as "a romantic modernist, determined to use the forms of modernism to achieve the emotional impact of traditionalism." Rather than aspiring to a preconceived aesthetic theory, however, Bohlin believes a building's highest calling is to evoke human emotion and possess a strong sense of place.

"He is probably the finest intuitive architect I know," says James Cutler, FAIA, Bainbridge Island, Wash. "When we joint-ventured on Gates, I'd take the rational approach and constantly hammer him to stay on concept, whereas he had a drive to make things visually delightful. He has one of the best eyes of anyone I've ever met."

The small summer house in Connecticut Bohlin designed for his parents, published in The New York Times in 1976, is still a prime example of the ethic that defines the firm's work. The long, slim house is set narrow side to the road, at a point in the forest where dark evergreens give way to a sunny deciduous landscape. It's clad in cedar, stained green to match the trees. A carefully orchestrated entrance sequence, marked by a series of red landmarks, progresses along a bridge, down some steps to a breezeway, then into a small vestibule. Ahead is the two-story living room, its huge, gridded, industrial corner windows playing off the leafy views. In the sunken living room, a spare fireplace and built-in seating evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's warm, orderly interiors. The Times described the house as at once artistic and practical, airy and anchored to earth. And this sensibility has been remarkably consistent in Bohlin's work ever since. Whatever the size or purpose, he designs buildings that delight people and bring out the subtleties of their surroundings.

Bohlin's love for the land traces back to childhood summers spent in Connecticut, near the future summer house. "I was a fisherman, and developed a kind of empathy with the trout, where and how they would be moving," he says. "I began to understand the nature of the place--its sense of life, a sense of the breeze. I think making terrific places, whether houses or larger buildings, has everything to do with the way we relate to those places. We try to fuel that web of connections that centers around people, whether the site is in the city or country."

Bohlin had a chance to develop those ideas at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he did his undergraduate work, and while completing a master's at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. And rather than being lured by big city lights, he chose to return to Wilkes-Barre, where his parents lived. "I saw Wilkes-Barre as a way to get out and do buildings immediately," he says.

An Archipelago

BCJ is still headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, where Bohlin lives. Although only Peter Bohlin, Bernard Cywinski, FAIA, and Jon Jackson, AIA, show up in the firm's name, there are eight partners. The other five--Dan Haden, AIA; Frank Grauman, AIA; Cornelius Reid, AIA; Russell Roberts, AIA; and William Loose, AIA--are scattered between headquarters and offices in Philadelphia, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Berkeley, Calif. Cywinski describes the 100-person firm as "an archipelago" rather than a main office with branches. "You can't define one office by itself," he says. "The whole sharing of experience between all the offices is what I think gives the richness to the architecture. We have a built-in peer review opportunity."

The setup fosters a warm, egalitarian environment that makes attrition virtually nonexistent. "There's a certain energy in the everyday of this office that inspires people to keep getting better at what they do," Cywinski says. And, in the crossover of work based in other offices, a more global view emerges on how to see a problem. The East Coast offices, for example, often get a heads-up on technologies in experimental stages on the West Coast.

The Large and the Small

The Gates assignment certainly deepened the entire firm's intellectual base on many different levels. It gave the architects the opportunity to research materials, such as the technology of building in timber. "We also had to figure out how to make a sprawling compound livable for two to five people, and how the computer would take its place in the house," Cywinski says. "You don't see one wire; there's nothing to give you a clue that this is the most technologically sophisticated house in the world."

At the new Liberty Bell pavilion on the redesigned Independence Mall in Philadelphia--another hot commission--BCJ faces the issues of public vs. private space on a much larger scale. "We're placing a tiny object--a bell--in an environment of three very large city blocks," Cywinski says. "How do you give the bell an honorific place but also an independent scale for when the human encounters the bell?"

"We all learn from doing houses," he adds. "They force you to think at that intimate scale for all projects, no matter how large they are."

The challenge is different at Pixar--Apple CEO Steve Jobs' animation and special effects studio that created "A Bug's Life" and the "Toy Story" movies --in Emeryville, Calif. There, the architects need to design for rapidly changing high-tech systems. They also need to create a balanced environment for the workers who inhabit the space.

"The computer is very one-on-one," Cywinski says. "You have to overcome that introversion with spaces that are more social. You can't drain the energy on one end and not recharge it."

Abiding Passion

Collaborating with his staff is one way Bohlin charges up his own energy, and he's quick to acknowledge the talents of those around him. "No architect does it alone," he says. "The truth is, I have great partners and terrific people within our practice. We've chosen each other."

Natural talent notwithstanding, Bohlin has honed an evenhanded repertoire of skills crucial to succeeding in his profession. Says Cutler: "In a lot of ways he's extremely practical, but visually he's exuberant. And he's a very savvy guy. You have to be able to schmooze people, be passionate, count numbers, and make budgets. Peter has all those traits."

Where do you go after you've been the architect for the richest man in America? Bohlin wants to continue an experiment the team began at the Gates compound: trying to reveal the nature of building materials by layering them. "Reading a costly material in front of a less expensive one implies it goes on, but it may not," he explains. "The idea has uses for larger buildings for economic as well as psychological reasons." He also looks forward to designing a house almost entirely of composite materials, and expressing them instead of hiding them.

For now, Bohlin is reveling in learning from each new client and site. "I think we're on a roll as far as having wonderful opportunities to build in many environments and circumstances, from the Bell pavilion, to firms such as Pixar, to houses on interesting sites for interesting people," Bohlin says. "I'm so tickled we have that range."