BY BRIAN LIBBY
For most architecture firms, design competitions are a roll of the dice. They often represent some of the most prestigious commissions, such as art museums and government buildings. But there is always the risk that a firm commits its time and resources to designing a project that will not be chosen.
Ever since architect Brad Cloepfil and his firm Allied Works won a design competition for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (which was completed in 2003), however, this format has been an effective vehicle for new work. It has delivered high-profile commissions like the re-design of 2 Columbus Circle for the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City (completed in 2008), the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor (completed in 2009, and winner of which won a national design award from the American Institute of Architects), and the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary (currently under construction). Along the way, Allied has been selected over internationally renowned architects and firms like Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & De Meuron.
Recently Allied Works was named one of eighteen international finalists to create the Pôle Muséal in Lausanne, Switzerland, a multi-tiered project that includes transforming an historic train shed and industrial site into a new cultural district as well as new building designs for the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de l’Elysée.
The Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts was originally created in 1841 by painter Louis Arlaud and has been housed since 1906 in the Palais de Rumine, a neo-Florentine style building. The MCBA’s collection ranges from the second half of the eighteenth century to post-impressionism, with particular emphasis on Cubism other abstract art, and the institution regularly presents exhibitions of modern and contemporary Swiss and international art.
With just 125,000 people, Lausanne is not the major metropolis other Swiss cities like Zurich or Basel may be (it's the nation's fourth largest city). Yet, perhaps like Bilbao, Spain, a major arts institution reborn in a great work of architecture could provide a significant injection of culture and attention to the city.
Allied Works' design entry brings to mind the firm's National Music Centre of Canada project, perhaps indicating a new era for the firm entered in recent years. Cloepfil and his firm have always seemed to come not only from the modernist tradition but specifically the notion of architectural tectonics articulated by author Kenneth Frampton (with local architect John Cava, a former colleague of Cloepfil's and an editor of Frampton's as connecting thread): the focus on architecture as a constructional craft. Frampton writes of "the original Greek sense of poetics as an act of making and revealing." Construction is broken down into two symbiotic halves: that of framework, such as wood or steel framing, and that of using compressive mass to build an enclosure, such as concrete or stone."Framework tends towards the aerial and dematerialization of mass, whereas the mass form is...embedding itself deeper in the earth. One tends toward the light and the other toward dark. These gravitational opposites . . . may be said to symbolize the two cosmological opposites to which they aspire; the sky and the earth." Somehow, even more than past projects like Cloepfil's career-launching Wieden + Kennedy building in Portland or the architect's museums, the Music Centre and the Lausanne submission seem to forge buildings in which light, transparency and circulation are chiseled out of a massive whole: not a kit of parts so much as a working, breathing sculpture revealed by what is taken away.
Consider, in that context, the Lausanne competition as described in Allied Works' recent press release: "The forms and spaces of the new MCBA are both monumental and transparent. The building’s geologic form is fractured by activity, providing glimpses into and through the heart of the building. Ideal gallery proportions establish a rhythm of space and structure along the Arts Walk and rail lines. Between galleries, structure, circulation and light form fissures of transparency – filtering and diffusing light into the galleries, providing views to the landscape and city while connecting the building vertically."
Critic historian Sandy Isenstadt similarly defines Cloepfil’s work as “aiming to create oases of legibility, spaces that can look out upon the simultaneous contrasts of the modern world to appreciate them from a place no less complex, but one that unfolds over time, with repeated visits, rather than at the speed of a camera shutter, thereby rewarding continued occupation rather than just dazzling the eye.”
Meanwhile, a public exhibition of the 18 finalists' designs (including Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, French architect Bernard Tschumi, and Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura) will be held June 17 – 30 at the Site des Halles CFF aux locomotives, Lausanne. A winner will be chosen later this year.