A Meditation on the Past
Architect Douglas Soe Lin's life and career have taken him on a remarkable journey-one that's reflected in his Bethesda house
In 2005, real estate executive Warren Amason was seeking an architect for a particularly challenging project.
Together with a Swedish philanthropist, Amason and his wife were developing a museum in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country just south of Tibet, which would house a comprehensive collection of the country’s weavings. The only problem: They hadn’t found the right architect.
Then one night, Amason sat up in bed as he suddenly remembered Douglas Soe Lin, a Bethesda architect he’d met years earlier.
“I contacted Doug and said, ‘It’s literally on the other side of the world,’ and he didn’t hesitate,” says Amason, an Arlington, Va., resident who works for Seattle-based Colliers International. “He said, ‘I’d love to do this.’ ”
Within months, Soe Lin had come up with a design for four buildings situated around a courtyard. The concept was based on a Bhutanese folktale about four animals cooperating in order to eat. The design featured traditional Bhutanese architecture with a modern flair, including an expansive glass wall.
When the queen of Bhutan saw it, Amason says, she “was blown away.”
It would be difficult to imagine a more ideal candidate for that job than Soe Lin. Born in Burma, and a Bethesda resident since age 16, the architect adroitly straddles both Eastern and Western cultures in his Bethesda-based firm, Soe Lin & Associates.
“He’s extremely agile, and kind of seamlessly works in two worlds,” says Miche Booz, a Washington-area architect who spent his teenage years in Carderock Springs with Soe Lin. “He’s a very unusual and perceptive architect.”
Soe Lin got his start in architecture at an early age. His maternal grandfather was one of Burma’s premier modern architects, the first to work for the British, according to Soe Lin. As children, Soe Lin and his older sister led what he describes as a “charmed life” in a big, light-filled house designed by his grandfather, with almost 30 cousins nearby. Even then, Soe Lin knew he wanted to be an architect. “I’d go to work with my grandfather and he’d teach me,” he says.
But the military took over in 1962, and two years later, his family fled the country. His father had held a prominent financial position in the former government, and “it would’ve been very tough for my parents if we’d stayed,” Soe Lin says.
So they came to Maryland. His father got a job at the International Monetary Fund, and Soe Lin enrolled in Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. It was culture shock at the start. “I had to learn to be a little more assertive,” he says.
Soe Lin went on to attend the University of Oklahoma, where architect Bruce Goff was designing buildings that spoke to the young man, with their almost Asian style of blending into the landscape. Later he earned his master’s degree in architecture from Catholic University.
In 1975, Soe Lin married the daughter of longtime family friends. (He and his wife, Myadali, have a 32-year-old son, Wyn, a businessman who lives off Democracy Boulevard.)
As Soe Lin’s practice grew in the Washington region—he designed buildings for Quadrangle Development Corporation, renovated the Defenders of Wildlife headquarters, designed The Shops at National Place—he kept an eye toward Asia. Eventually, jobs there opened up. Soe Lin designed houses in Thailand and is currently working on a mixed-use project in China’s Yunnan province.
But home remains Carderock Springs, where his fusion of Eastern and Western cultures can be seen on a more personal scale. He lives in the house where he spent his high school years: Soe Lin’s parents settled in this mid-century modern Bethesda neighborhood after fleeing the military dictatorship. An enclave whose houses were designed to harmonize with the wooded terrain, Carderock Springs appealed to his parents with its contemporary architecture and many international residents.
Soe Lin and his wife bought the house in 1981. His parents and sister missed Burma, and decided to return. “It was tough for them at first,” Soe Lin says, though they’ve gradually settled in.
With its white brick and long line of windows, the home blends seamlessly with the neighborhood. But the interior has been significantly altered. Soe Lin has almost doubled the original 2,350 square feet. “Every [exterior] wall has been moved out,” he says.
The house retains its original clean lines and open floor plan. Nearly all of the rooms are topped by high, sloping ceilings, with few square angles. But in a tip of the hat to Eastern architecture, the plan focuses less on walls than on the home’s horizontal spaces, its oak floors and the long ledges and shelves that run along almost every wall.
A balcony was removed in the front room to expand the main living space. That room connects seamlessly to a spare dining area that features a long and simple black wood table. Soe Lin and his wife bought it at Cassina’s New York store.
Around the corner is the kitchen. The original Formica countertops and the 1960s-era appliances were traded for granite and stainless steel, but it’s still a relatively small space. “I like simple things, not too extravagant,” Soe Lin says.
The Soe Lins aren’t anti-adornment, though: The house holds a variety of knickknacks, mostly figurines and small sculptures from Burma.
Down the hall from the kitchen is another nod to Eastern culture: a meditation room that Doug Soe Lin uses regularly. Situated under a low, sloped roof, it’s tiny and functional, with just enough space for a small rug, cushions and an altar with statues of Buddha.
Trim, with salt-and-pepper hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses, Soe Lin appears, at 63, as unfussy and quietly reserved as his house. But some of that reserve disappears when the architect walks out the back door.
The deck and yard are clearly his favorite parts of the property. A neutral observer might see a deck with steps that lead to wooden platforms. But Soe Lin sees a journey.
Standing on the deck looking at the yard, he says: “You set your goal and walk to the edge. Then you take the plunge”—down the stairs, which are framed by two high brick walls. At the bottom is the first wooden platform. “You take a rest there, and then you look back at yourself and where you’ve been.”
Once you move forward, the stone walkway zigs and zags, forcing you to correct your course.
Then you arrive at the end, where there’s another wooden platform. At 9 feet by 9 feet, it’s the size of a typical tea ceremony room in Japan, Soe Lin says, and about the size of a dynamic sphere, considered in some Asian martial arts as the limit to which one can sense one’s surroundings.
Looking back at the deck and the house, he points out the dualities of the design: horizontal lines contrasting with vertical ones; mass mixed with lightness.
“It’s my little meditation garden design,” Soe Lin says. “It’s very hard to leave here.”
Little by little, though, Soe Lin has been leaving his retreat and continuing his own journey. In the past decade, he has taken on an increasing number of projects in Asia, including that museum in Bhutan, which is slated to open next May. He’s especially eager to work in Burma, where he has already designed a hospital and a number of homes. The military junta that took over when he was a teenager has undertaken a number of promising reforms over the past two years, most notably allowing an opposition party to win elections in April. While human rights observers are holding their enthusiasm in check, the country is undoubtedly changing.
“The next 10 years in Burma will be like China was 15 years ago: a lot of investments coming in, a lot of opportunity for architecture,” Soe Lin says. “It’s very exciting.”
Amanda Abrams is based in Washington, D.C., and frequently writes about architecture and real estate.