Chad Oppenheim designs Shlomy Alexander’s Miami home
Double vision: A house in Miami blurs the lines between urban and wild life
When Shlomy Alexander and his son Oren bought the last vacant lot in Bal Harbor, an exclusive neighborhood north of Miami Beach, in 2012, they knew they wanted to create something that was both spectacular and comfortable. The place was unique in that it appears to connect two worlds – the front shows some of the most valuable real estate in the United States, while the back looks out over Biscayne Bay and the primitive mangrove wilderness of Oleta River State Park. Watch the sun set and pelicans and dolphins can emerge, completely untouched by the nearby city.
The Alexanders wanted to build a home that would combine the duality of Miami’s subtropical environment, both its growing urbanity and its natural beauty. They turned to architect Chad Oppenheim, who had also designed his own waterfront home in Miami. “I learned a lot by living in a house that I designed,” he says. “You have to create the most incredible space possible.
“It’s about feeling and feeling is timeless. It’s not about fads or trends or some cool material that everyone uses. ‘Oppenheim’s emotive ethos has resulted in a gem of tropical modernism that is shaped by both Japanese and classical tropes. An open-air ground floor blurs the boundaries of inside and outside, while an elegant, wide rectangular frame forms the second floor and creates a panoramic view. Such frames are a common theme in the work of the architect. “I’ve played around with these shapes for a long time since I was in architecture school,” says Oppenheim. “These boxes come from Donald Judd’s sculptures as they framed nature. The frame allows you to focus on what is there, just like a painting. And the Japanese played with sliding boards and framing views of nature, so these are the principles we use. ‘
The first thing you see when you step in the front door is an unobstructed view straight out into the bay. The next thing you notice is an Alexander Calder cell phone spinning slow gyres in the ocean breeze. From there, the house opens up into space vignettes that feel separate but are visually connected to the rest of the house and the water. However, the first floor experience really radiates when you retract the glass walls. “The idea is that the walls of the house start to disappear and all you have left is the landscape,” says senior project architect Kevin McMorris.
When the walls are gone, room-sized gardens protrude into the room, creating an idea of Spanish courtyards covered with palm fronds. “You are in constant conversation with the outside world, with the view. That was the initial indictment and the idea for the house, ”says McMorris. Upstairs, the master bedroom’s 75 foot window continuously connects you to the water that rolls in at high tide.
Oppenheim designed the house almost entirely from three materials: American oak, which forms the walls, ceilings, doors, cabinets and floating stairs; Roman travertine that runs from the entrance through the house to the bottom of the pool with glass walls; and glass, a large part of which is retractable. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not able to use more than a few materials,” jokes Oppenheim. “I like to use fine materials, things that show themselves and their natural properties.” He notes that he and the Alexanders worked hard to get the right tactile matte finishes, which is unusual in Miami, a city with lots of shiny white houses. “We’re trying to make a limited palette. Neutral colors let you focus on what’s in the frame,” he says.
“In a way, it’s as classic as it is modern. There are inner courtyards, there are loggias, the power of symmetry, ”continues Oppenheim. “These things comfort me.” And comfort was a goal from the start, as the house is intended as a real home, as a retreat, not as a trophy room for events. “I try to avoid labels,” he says. “But I think, in a way, it’s the concept of romantic minimalism – romantic because it’s meant for pleasure. It’s not architecture for architecture’s sake. It’s architecture that just celebrates the beauty of a place. ‘