Recently two exceptionally acclaimed Northwest architects Brad Cloepfil of Portland's Allied Works and Tom Kundig of Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen (which I just profiled for Architecture Week), were guests for an extended conversation at The Back Room, an ongoing dinner and discussion series hosted by author Matthew Stadler and Stephanie Snyder, curator of Reed College's Cooley Gallery. Although I didn't make it to the event, held a couple of weeks ago, another freelance architecture writer, Brett Campbell, was there, and generously agreed to offer his thoughts:
For the past four years, Portland author Matthew Stadler has put together Back Room gatherings. Stadler's theory is that bringing people together over food and ideas and music gets important conversations about public issues going, and he's so sincere and idealistic about this that it's hard to resist.
On Feb 27, Seattle architect Jerry Garcia acted as interlocutor for two of the region's most prominent architects. Tom Kundig (pictured above) is a principal and partner at Seattle's Olson, Sundberg, Kundig, Allen, which was named the AIA's national Firm of the Year for 2009. His work has been published widely, including in a book from Princeton Architectural Press, Tom Kundig: Houses. Brad Clopefil (pictured below) is the founder and principal of Portland's Allied Works. His recent projects include the Museum of Art and Design, in New York, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, and the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, in Dallas, Texas. Garcia is a senior project manager at Kundig’s firm.
Probably most of the people who paid for the dinner and abundant red wine were either architects or intensely interested in architecture. I'm not an architect, so I didn't recognize many of the attendees, except fellow journalist Randy Gragg, who specializes in architecture and urban design issue. Nevertheless, even for an amateur like me, the conversation was pretty fascinating, helped in part by questions from Gragg and other audience members that kept the discussion from being too much for insiders.
One topic was the Museum of Art & Design Cloepfil recently refurbished on Columbus Circle in Manhattan (pictured at right in a shot borrowed from Flickr). Cloepfil said he was happy with the galleries. It started as a concrete box without light. He said he looked not at what Edward Durrell Stone had done but what the building should be in 2006—a true modernist attitude, it seems to me. His work at MAD involved cutting holes and letting the light in, as with Cloepfil's celebrated Weiden & Kennedy building here. He called that process a "tracheotomy," a sharp analogy. Cloepfil said he wasn't trying to make W+K iconic—just to let the light in. Cloepfil said it was a lucky break for him because getting that kind of blank slate will probably never happen again.
On developing an identity and regionalism, Cloepfil said growing up in Portland when Michael Graves was supposedly the trend, it wasn't till he saw a Richard Serra piece that he realized that that's what architecture can be. The work he saw going up in the US was "horribly meaningless" while he was in Switzerland, where he saw terrific architecture that had meaning.
Someone asked about how Cloepfil and Kundig are regarded on the national scene, and Cloepfil said that if for someone living on the east coast and someone comes in from the west, they're regarded as a cowboy coming and telling you about the frontier.
Cloepfil also says in the US regional voices get contained and stereotyped. New York, he said, loves people like him and Kundig as long as they stay within that stereotype. There are just a few strong regional voices (such as Arizona’s Rick Joy) but that he and others had to deal with the attitude among New Yorkers: "Who the fuck is he? He's from Oregon. He's not Zaha Hadid."
On the relationship between art and architecture, Garcia said he and Cloepfil share a similar obsession with art. Cloepfil said architects look to artists for courage, boldness, as "springboard to purity." Clopefil said he's inspired by Richard Serra, 60-something years old and still working so hard.
Kundig (one of whose designs from OSKA is pictured above) agreed that architecture is functional or applied art and he looks to real artists for inspiration. His philosophy of architecture is setting the stage and watching what happens. What goes on inside the building is more interesting than the architecture.
Randy Gragg [editor of Portland Spaces] asked what are some projects they'd like to do. Kundig said he’d like to do something here because he loved Portland and compared to Seattle it was kind of a pleasant-ville because it understands role of urban settings. Kundig also wishes people in Seattle would develop cultural will to do good design and address problems.
Cloepfil said he wants to work with an institution that can really inspire in a Portland way. It happened in the 1970s here but not since. "Green is good, but it ain’t gonna do it,” he said. "It's our strength, but we have to go deeper” than just green design. We have to look at evolving principles of design before just sustainability.
(Whew, all this talk about architecture is making me thirsty. And — what a lucky break! — there appears to be a glass of red wine directly in front me. I’m sure it was empty just a minute ago.)
On sustainability and good design, Cloepfil said the built environment has neglected beauty and purity of design in favor of trends and sensationalism of the last 15 years He said he'd attended Mayor Adams's talk at the city club the other day and that the talk about green design and sustainability overshadowed good design as an enduring core and ethic.
Kundig said design decisions now have to do multiple things on a low budget -- have to do smart things that can bring in light and at same time do things like rooftop irrigation etc.
On integrity and process, Kundig views the architect’s responsibility in context of being part of a team. Cloepfil said temporality has a purity in itself. (That sounds really deep, and at the time, that made perfect sense to me, but you see, I'm remembering this without benefit of pinot noir.) His creation manifesto is channeling cultural energy. Architecture is an assault—the initial cut is a clear cut.
Kundig differs a bit here. To him, architecture is more of a process, like jazz. Unlike Cloepfil, whom he sees holding on for dear life to his original ideas, Kundig is willing to compromise more. Every project that was most successful has gotten better after interaction with the clients, contractors, etc. He's not an artist.
You have to trust time, Cloepfil added. It's not about the process. You have to hope that you can move all those other forces, including the mayor, politics. [I think he was talking about MAD mostly here.] You have to look at things that are pure and hope that they survive cultural forces. "Edward Durrell Stone -- what were you thinking? The city has moved on." So you have to look beyond the temporal process.