Charles Cunniffe Reflects on the Art of Architecture

Nearly four decades after he founded his eponymous firm, the architect shares his thoughts
Arch Ext

Photo by Mark Bosclair

A prominent Aspen, Colorado, figure since 1979, architect Charles Cunniffe is perhaps best known for his legacy homes featuring natural materials and large expanses of glass that frame sweeping mountain vistas.

Arch Restrooms

For the Rio Grande Park restrooms in Aspen, Cunniffe designed a structure made of steel and gabion walls, which are built with stone cobble harvested from the site and tied together with wire. Solar panels and LED lighting reflect the architect’s strong belief in sustainability. Photo by Ross Kribbs.

However, he has also tackled a variety of other projects throughout the region, including mixed-use structures, historic preservation and municipal buildings like the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Station 45 in Snowmass Village and the Aspen Police Department. “Public safety professionals are essential to our community, and we are incredibly grateful to create for them inspiring spaces to live and work,” Cunniffe says, noting that different kinds of projects inform one another and yield new innovations.

Arch Bath

This spa-like bathroom’s white walls and Calacatta Vagli marble flooring perfectly frame the verdant landscape in this Aspen abode. Photo by Aaron Leitz.

The approach continues to bear fruit: In 2020 the firm will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Cunniffe is quick to give credit to his 21 employees for his enduring success. “Architecture is not a one-man show,” he says. “The field is highly technical and incredibly involved, and it takes a team of experienced architects to complete a successful project.”

Mountain Living: How has your field changed since you started out?

Charles Cunniffe: When I started, computers were not available in architecture and everything was done by hand. Today nearly everything is done digitally, including the execution of construction documents and the build- ing permits. I still draw everything by hand, and I think that’s a strength. Drawing has a flow to it that I don’t feel comes from a digital approach. It connects art and architecture through your hand. I encourage my staff to draw by hand in addition to using technology, because I think it’s more intuitive than using keystrokes.

Arch Living

Symmetry rules in this Aspen home, which boasts a wood-beamed ceiling and a fireplace made of granite and Montana buff sandstone. Photo by David O. Marlow.

ML: You design from the inside out. Why is that?

CC: A nice exterior looks beautiful, and I think that happens naturally if the inside works really well. It’s the same with people—beauty comes from the inside out.

ML: Why does your firm put so much emphasis on sustainability?

CC: There’s a sense of duty. If you’re not doing something that contributes to the benefit of the planet then you’re doing something that harms the planet. What’s really rewarding is that all of our legacy clients are very appreciative of environmental approaches. They are always inspired when we suggest an eco-friendly method or a solution that is zero-maintenance or off the grid.

ML: How do you respond to architectural and design trends?

CC: We’re always learning about new materials, products and ways of doing things, but we’re inventing—never copying. If something has been done before, we don’t want to repeat it. Every project is totally unique, an opportunity to design and do something for the first time. When we see a trend, we try to jump ahead of it and see what we can help happen next.

Arch Stair

In this legacy dwelling, a steel-framed glass wall allows natural light to flood into the interior stairway with open treads. Photo by David O. Marlow.

ML: How does your background in art and sculpture influence your work?

CC: Unlike a drawing or a painting, sculpture is viewed from all different angles. It’s a moving work of art, be- cause as you walk around it, you’re seeing it from different points of view. I would never want a building or a house to only look good from one direction. Life is not two-dimensional.

Arch Nook

Illuminated by lighting by Tom Dixon, a built-in leather-covered banquette offers a spot to enjoy the mountain views in this Aspen home. Photo by David O. Marlow.

ML: What is the most rewarding thing about being an architect?

CC: The most rewarding part is that I get to contribute to society and improve people’s lives. Architecture is part of everything. It’s not just buildings. It’s the design of artifacts, objects, furniture and lighting. It involves all the senses. It’s a microcosm of the whole world.

ML: How has mountain design changed since you began your career?

CC: Mountain design has evolved over the decades: [We now have] open, light-filled spaces, larger expanses of glass due to improved technology, fireplaces in different shapes and sizes, vastly improved lighting products, smart home technologies such as climate controls and security, walls of glass that open to the outdoors, and a greater awareness and emphasis on sustainable design, systems and materials.

Categories: Architects