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How CCY Architects Creates a Connection with Landscape

John Cottle and Rich Carr, partners of CCY Architects in Colorado, talk about their shared love of integrating architecture with its surroundings

Known for an approach that seamlessly blends digital and analog, CCY Architects is increasingly being recognized both at home and internationally, and the partners’ second monograph, Connection, will be released in May 2021 by The Monacelli Press. Here, principal architects John Cottle and Rich Carr discuss their process—including their intensive design charette, where “more is accomplished in three days than months of working in isolation!”

Interior of Meadow House by CCY Architects
The interior of CCY-designed Meadow House (the exterior is shown above in the header image), which lies in a meadow above the confluence of two rivers and is intended to be an extension of the landscape. Image: Jeremy Bittermann

Did you both always want to be architects?
John Cottle (JC): In the rearview mirror, yes, but before getting my master’s in architecture I completed a B.A. in English literature, so the route was a bit circular.
Rich Carr (RC): As a child I was always designing and sketching ideas for new inventions and art was natural. By high school, architecture had piqued my interest and I attended Cornell’s Summer Architecture program.

We’re passionate about connecting architecture to the landscape; people’s lives are enriched when it happens

Tell us about an early building that impressed you…
JC: Growing up I spent a lot of time in the West—southern Idaho and western Wyoming—and the agrarian buildings and compounds of the region are very humble. They have a poetic sparseness and power to them that moved me at a very young age, and still do today.
RC: Our family cabin in the Sierras, designed by Bay Area architect Donald MacDonald. Powerful in its simplicity—strong, timber bones, an A-frame-like structure perched above the mountainside—it was accessed by a bridge that allowed the massive, sometimes 15-foot (4.6 m) snowpack to accumulate below. It was a magical place to escape to.

The Music Box by CCY Architects
A Victorian home, the Music Box incorporates an aluminum skin, with perforations that correspond to “Nocturne Op. No. 9” by Chopin and let filtered light into the recital room, which dances as the sun moves through the sky. Image: Draper White

How has technology changed the CCY Architects approach?
Both: We have very sophisticated software that allows us to integrate our buildings into a site and have our clients walk through their houses virtually. At the same time, we spend a lot of time hand drawing—it’s important to be able to sketch an intention in real time with a client.

As a firm, we have almost 50 years of experience and also a ton of young energy with the authority to make a difference

How do you approach a residential commission?
Both: We listen to our clients and assess the site. Our goal is to get rid of preconceptions and identify the guiding principles for that site and that client. We are really passionate about connecting architecture to the landscape; people’s lives are enriched when it happens.

Exterior of Gammel Damm by CCY Architects
By blurring the line between architecture and landscape, Gammel Damm, an award-winning family cabin, seeks to ensure that the architecture defers to the land and reflects the simple Scandinavian heritage of the client. Image: Draper White

Why do you think people come to CCY?
Both: We are collaborative in how we think, work, and communicate. Our clients are brought into our charette process (an intensive on-site work session with the CCY Architects team, owners, and stakeholders) early on, and that allows us to put forth some sophisticated concepts in a comfortable environment. The work gets better because of that. This might be one of the reasons that so much of our work comes from referrals.

How big is your team and what are your offices like?
Both: We designed our office space 20 years ago as if it were a semi-finished loft. The work on the walls, material samples, and mock-ups are what finish the space—it incubates creativity. We’ve never believed in private offices, it’s a truly open studio, a space that welcomes dialogue, design pin-ups, and “drive-by” desk critiques. As a firm, we have almost 50 years of experience and also a ton of young energy with the authority to make a difference. The combination of the two is powerful. We’re half women, half men, and it is a great group of active, engaged people who make the firm an inspirational, fun place to work.

John Cottle and Rich Carr of CCY Architects
John Cottle (left), who joined CCY in 1980 and Rich Carr, who joined in 1989. Their current projects include a house that will produce more energy than it uses, a hotel that is part of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and a collection of pavilions in Barbuda.

Tell us more about the design charette—what happens?
Both: We begin all of our projects with a three-day design charette. Our clients check in a couple of times a day while we work kind of around the clock. It’s a real-time, iterative process with lots of quick sketching. It is incredibly powerful and also effective—we get to know our clients over early morning coffees and late-night glasses of wine, and we establish a shared vision, guiding principles, site diagrams, and the conceptual basis for architectural massing and character. More is accomplished in those three days than months of working in isolation!

What’s one commission you’d really love to work on?
Both: A regenerative retreat in a spectacular natural setting—a place that transforms the visitor, and gives back more than it takes. It is net positive both in its construction and its operation, and creates lasting inspiration for its visitors long after they leave.

Banner image: Meadow House. Jeremy Bittermann