With a book on Allied Works being published next winter, Brad Cloepfil told Randy Gragg during their interview Monday evening at Jimmy Mak's jazz club that he’s been looking back on the firm’s early career. “The last thing we need is more buildings, but we certainly need more architecture,” he said. The essential question for Allied Works, he added, has been, “What can the work heighten or reveal…that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see?”
Following are some notes I took over a Stella Artois.
Talking about Allied’s Museum of Art & Design at 2 Columbus Circle in New York, currently finishing up construction (and looking quite dazzling, I think), he said the design approach working with the decades-empty but architecturally significant Edward Durrell Stone original building was “removing structure as a way of creating experience.” Cloepfil described the original as “the inert box that was rendered transparent.” The façade now acts as a series of cantilevers, and the museum’s cladding “literally created a new glazing that brings color and iridescence in certain light.” In that way, 2 Columbus Circle resembles Cloepfil’s W+K building in that it is also “first an act of editing.”
For the Seattle Art Museum, he showed the pattern of a spider web and talked about being “given an existing envelope and prescribed boundaries.” It’s a stainless steel building that “gathers forces”. Not much time spent here, though.
Allied’s vacation house in Duchess County, New York is a “visceral glass house, intended not just to be clear, but a diaphanous part of the landscape.” Artist Doug Aiken filmed construction of the house during four different seasons and is projecting the footage onto the fours sides of the house. “You begin a conversation with the architecture that the art extend," he said. "Buildings are less important as objects. The real value of the building is how people can act upon it.”
On his time at the University of Oregon and in Thomas Hacker’s office, both of which brought Louis Kahn’s influence: “We were so lucky when Lou Kahn’s office closed in ‘74 or ‘75, there was a migration of five of six of them to U of O. I was just a suburban kid then. I assumed it was just the way you talked about architecture.”
“There was a morality to Tom’s work I resisted,” Cloepfil also said of Hacker, “but it has stayed with me in some ways. It’s the nature of a good teacher…that you don’t have to push against ideas because you can come to own them yourself. Our St. Louis building was about structure, for example, whereas Lou Kahn was more about plan.”
Cloepfil also talked about the influence sculptors had on him, particularly while he was in graduate school in New York at Columbia in the mid-1980s. “It was a dark time for architecture,” he remembers of the postmodern age. “Art filled a void in ‘70s and ‘80s architecture and extended it through 15 years of silence as far as ideas go.” Works by Richard Serra “blew my mind. It was the most powerful piece of architecture I’d been in. Everything I’d learned about architecture I saw in that work. Then you look at stuff like the Portland Building and you see people got lost.”
Talking later about Allied Works’ magnificent 2281 NW Glisan building, Gragg remarked at how the project managed to narrowly avoid a implementation of a historic landmark district, who’s chair later said he’d had have allowed Cloepfil’s glass building over his dead body. The architect also remembers getting some eloquent hate mail about the building. But, he says, the Glisan project was a sensible approach to its historic context. “Given the closed buildings around it, wouldn’t it be great to open up?” he asked, by way of explanation. “We said, ‘Let’s do a 20th century building before they close the 20th century.”
Cloepfil had strong criticism for how neighborhoods subject to historic landmarks commission review overstep and misunderstand their role as stewards of architecture. “It’s demeaning to history to mock it,” he said. “Be respectful by how you juxtapose it to the new. But the United States is the worst about this.” In the 1970s, he said, with such destruction happening from urban renewal, and areas like the south auditorium district leveled as a result, it was understandable to try and freeze neighborhoods subject to unwanted change in order to protect them. But now, he added, “We need to have a new conversation about historic architecture.”
Asked to critique the overall architectural caliber of the wave of new condos in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, he said, “I wish there was more diversity of style and voice. But the Upper West Side of Manhattan is probably one of the most architecturally bland areas of New York. Both neighborhoods were built very fast, over about 20 years. Here in Portland, I think there’s not necessarily an iconic building [among the new condos], but there’s a scale and quality that’s a good fabric for the city. But can we do more than the nice, the status quo? Granted, other cities don’t do that, and hence the success of Portland. But it would be nice to take a stab at something bigger.”
Probed to comment on a series of projects, Cloepfil had a big thumbs-up for Memorial Coliseum. “It would be insane if it’s not saved,” he said. “It’s a beautiful glass pavilion.” He was not as complimentary, though, toward the popular Jamison Square Park in the Pearl. “It’s a theme park. It’s an urban artifice. You could have done something so much more elegant.” On South Waterfront the architect said, “It’s contained, it’s dense, but it’s so isolated as a pod. That frightens me.”
I believe the conversation continued onward from there, but I've got a 24,000 word writing assignment due Thursday, so I had to sneak out just a tad early.