Brad Cloepfil (image courtesy Allied Works)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
After forming in 1994 and then gaining local and national attention in the latter half of the '90s with projects like the Maryhill Overlook and especially the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, Allied Works Architecture and founding architect Brad Cloepfil have amassed a broad portfolio of exceptional structures ranging from art museums to houses, university buildings to animation studios.
Combining a highly refined, almost Louis Kahn-like sense of rigor and materials with Cloepfil's Oregon-bred notion of buildings rooted in landscape, Allied has won acclaim and occasionally experienced a bit of controversy for high-profile projects such as the Museum of Arts and Design on New York's Columbus Circle, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts in Dallas, and the Caldera Arts Center in rural central Oregon. Last year the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver brought some of the best reviews of Cloepfil's career.
If there is one frustration to Allied's portfolio from a Portland perspective, it's that the most celebrated local architect and firm of this generation has done relatively little here. Today the magnificent Wieden + Kennedy building and the 2281 Glisan building are, other than a sprinkling of houses and some restaurants, the only completed works. That was true when I profiled Cloepfil in the New York Times ten years ago, and remains so today. But whenever talk of potential new landmarks comes up, particularly cultural ones like a new Portland Art Museum building or a new sympny hall, I think of Allied Works.
But things are changing with regard to local projects, just as the economy seems to be lifting most architects' boats after a long recession. Besides staying busy with projects beyond our shores, like the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary, Cloepfil and company have designed the Pacific Northwest College of Art's renovation of the historic 511 Broadway, an early-20th century federal building. Allied co-created the Vancouver Connector, which (budget-willing) will cap Interstate 5 for several blocks and restitch the city's downtown core decades after it was severed by the freeway. And recently the firm unveiled renderings for a new tasting room at Sokol Blosser Winery, in the pastoral hills of Yamhill County near Dundee.
This week Cloepfil sat down to discuss the firm's present and future.
Portland Architecture: What are you working on now? What's occupying your time from day to day?
Cloepfil: It’s nuts. I’ll give you the quick survey. We’re working with Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the glaze people in Amsterdam who did the terra cotta glazing for 2 Columbus Circle, on glazes for the National Music Centre of Canada.
Then we’re also doing a new U.S. embassy in Mozambique, as part of the GSA’s Design Excellence program. We’re working with YGH Architecture on that. We’re just right in schematic design. Flew over there mid-December. It’s a whole new building, ten-acre site in Maputo, on the water. It’s challenging, both as project type and process. We’re used to working with private nonprofits, one of the best clients you can get. It’s good for us. It makes you realize how sheltered you’ve been. It’s just really different, really fun. We are enjoying that immensely, because it’s so new.
National Music Centre of Canada (rendering coutesy MIR and Allied Works)
We submitted for a competition I can’t tell you about and it’s looking good. So we’re in touch about that. We just got a new house to do in Bridgehampton, New York. We just signed that agreement. There’s the Spaulding Paolozzi Center, the architecture school for Clemson University. It’s controversial: contemporary architecture in a historic context is something we seem to be drawn to. It’s really kind of thrilling.
I also just reviewed some of the finishes at Sokol Blosser Winery, and we’re doing a walk through at Catlin Gabel School on Thursday. We’re working on a show of the concept models and drawings. A publisher wants to publish the catalog.And with 511 Broadway, the firm is finally doing a major building in Portland again
It’s exciting that PNCA is moving forward. That was such a particular little project, 511 Broadway, finding a key to make new interventions in the old: modest but powerful. It’s refreshing to have some work in Portland again.
Being an old-building renovation or re-imagination, 511 also has some parallels with Allied’s most acclaimed project here, the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters.
Yes, it’s that process of what can we do to make this building feel like it was touched by the 21st century.
In both cases I feel like the projects reveal a particular talent you have: the art of taking away, of carving a more human, open space out of an earlier generation’s design.
I would say so. With W+K we cut a hole in the middle over five stories and brought it back together. It’s weaving in light and bringing in circulation. I think there’s lots of opportunity for the 511 building in that same way.
Speaking of PNCA, what do you make of a former employee of yours, Thomas Robinson, getting a commission to design the school’s first residential building? Is there an Allied Works trickle-down effect in Portland?
That’s exciting, isn’t it? Thomas is enormously talented. So that makes sense. I think that’s fantastic. Practically all the design firms in Portland are spin-offs from Nike and Wieden + Kennedy anyway. That’s good. That’s how design culture gets built.Has what you do from day to day as an architect changed over time as the firm has become more prominent?
Sure it has. I still do charcoal sketches, thank God. I still initiate all the projects. I’m still intimately involved in the work. It’s just it’s gotten bigger and more diverse. I’ve done two books in the last four yeas; now I’m doing another book. It’s just the scope of considerations is bigger. I just travel a lot more than I used to. I think that’s the key. As you mature, you manage more. We’re looking for some kind of managing partner. I’m hoping when we find that person I can loop back a bit.
[Points to concept sketches pinned to the office wall.] It’s making the work. It’s the conceptual beginnings and it’s the rigor to follow through on the details. I think the success of Allied Works is the culture that has been created here with people like Dan Koch and Chelsea Grassinger, Kyle Lommen, Chris Bixby, and Brent Linden. There’s an intensely rigorous and thoughtful pursuit of the design ideas at every single phase. I think it distinguishes our work. For a while, it was me having to create that culture. Now it’s just here. It’s exciting. These [pointing to the drawings] are some of the most sophisticated things we’ve done. My efforts still go into starting the buildings and a lot goes now into the strategy of getting them built. It’s political, it’s economic.
When I won the St. Louis commission, for our first museum, there was a dinner afterwards in Emmy Pulitzer’s summerhouse. It’s a screened summerhouse filled with Picasso and Monet and Ellsworth Kelly. It’s incredible. Richard Serra was there at the dinner, and I heard him tell Pulitzer about how to get his work done: he could see his creative work was the whole process. I realized you have to take full responsibility for getting your work built. There’s a lot of primadonnas in our profession: “Here’s my design, it’s $120 a square foot, call me when you get the money raised.” For me it’s just the opposite. When you get one of these commissions you have to take responsibility for getting it executed. A lot of it has to do with editing it down. The politics and strategy part is enormous. I’d say that’s what takes more of my time than I’d have thought of. The politics and the strategy are bigger and more complex.
Architecture makes you patient because everything takes so long. These significant projects, take five, maybe seven years. Even Sokol Blosser is a two, two and a half year project.
Let’s talk about the Sokol Blosser winery project. It’s not Portland but it’s within an easy drive, in Yamhill County.
The brief was really just pretty elemental in the beginning: just a tasting room. Michael Kelly Brown [the winery’s director of sales and marketing] had managed Bluehour; I think that's how the intro happened. But then we revisited their master plan and tried to figure out where to site it, and what the relationship between the buildings would be. Once we established the idea of this building rising from the earth and this carved language of lawns and terraces moving up the hill, then it was exploring the idea of the tasting room.
How does yours differ from a regular tasting room?
So many of them are these empty cavernous spaces with a bar in the corner. They’re not very inviting places. So we tried to scale the building so there are lots of smaller spaces to occupy: a kitchen, a cellar room. It’s slightly under 5,000 square feet, I think. I don’t think there’s a tasting room like it, and I mean that sincerely. It’s all wood. It’s wood boards on the siding that have been milled on the exterior, and cedar on the inside. It’s kind of a carved monolith of wood.
It reminds me a little of Peter Zumthor’s Therme Valls baths in Switzerland, only with wood instead of stone.
I can see that: the labyrinthine quality, and the unity of the mass.
What types of projects would you like to do in the years ahead?
I don’t have an imaginary list. It’s just new things. It doesn’t have to mean a new building type. It can mean exploring technologies or new means of construction. We’re doing amazing things on the Clemson project where the beams become structural light fixtures on the studios. They’re perforated structural walls that diffuse light into the studios. We began thinking about that on the [Clyfford] Still Museum. This building has tremendous sun exposure in Charleston. And Sokol Blosser, being on that site, it’s light frame construction, something I haven’t done much. It’s more surface and shade driven. Sometimes it’s new typologies, but not always. It’s just new opportunities. To make something new, the responsibility lies with you. I’d be perfectly happy to keep making art spaces as long as we could create a dialog.
I think we’re doing the strongest work we’ve ever done. I feel that absolutely. There’s a maturity to the investigation.
Were you frustrated by the reception to the Museum of Arts & Design? Except for the late great critic Ada Louise Huxtable and a few others, nobody seemed to review the building that was there. Instead, there seemed to be a lot of reviews acting as hand-wringing over whether Edward Durell Stone’s original building at 2 Columbus Circle should have been preserved.
She actually talked about the building and what we did. Otherwise, it was people using that building as a platform for their position. But I loved Ada, and I like critics like Blair Kamin in Chicago. He actually talks about architecture.
What do you make of the changes Portland has undergone since you were practicing here in the late ‘90s?
I think it’s so much better. It’s interesting. Ten years ago if you’d asked me about the pearl I’d be extremely critical. You look at the Pearl now, the whole rail yards, between the park spaces and the street life, the scale and even the character of the buildings…I have a place in Chelsea in New York, and I walk down Sixth and Seventh Avenues a lot. The quality of architecture in the Pearl is so far above average and so far above what 99 percent of what cities are doing, including New York in many cases. Can it be better? Of course. but there’s a richness to it. I think the Pearl an enormously successful neighborhood. I compare it to the Upper West Side, sixty blocks built in about 20 years. It’s like that. As time comes and it wears and weathers and becomes more diverse, I think it becomes wildly successful. I think that’s a huge thing for Portland. And I think design culture in the country has become much better.Who are some of the local firms and architects you admire?
Well, Works Partnership, I love their work. I like Gene Sandoval at ZGF a lot. And there’s Corey Martin. There’s a lot of other people too. There’s a design culture here now. So not only is the commercial culture of the Pearl above average, but there’s a kind of design culture here that didn’t exist ten years ago. It’s a maturing city. I think we could almost call ourselves a city [laughing].
When Sam [Adams] first took office and he had this creative council or whatever you call it, my position was, ‘What is Portland about?’ It’s not about sustainability or bike lanes. Practically every city in the world is doing that. It’s about creativity, whether legislation for land use or environmentalism. That’s the one thing Portland’s always had: we've always pushed things reactively. That’s our culture, and that’s that we should be pushing.
Given that you’ve not only designed the 511 Broadway building for PNCA but created the master plan, how do you see the school’s future? Or Portland State University’s?
You can look at RISD for your example for PNCA. That’s every urban art school’s mentor. I was there in the late ’70s and it was one or two buildings. Now it’s like 12 or 20. It’s not explosive growth but I think it’s continual growth. I think that school’s a perfect fit for the city. That’s why I pursued our relationship. I think it’s the future. PSU’s the future of the academy and PNCA’s the future of the creative class. And the demand is there. My daughter is in her early 20s. A lot of her friends, some of them may have gone away to school or are at PSU. Which would not have been considered by smart kids in my generation or yours.
PSU also has a bona fide architecture school now. What might the impact be?
These are conversations John Cava and I came to them about years and years ago. Where are you going to be able to hire the best architecture faculty, Eugene or Portland? Cava and I had to go down to UO to convince them to have a full time job up here. But that program has made huge leaps with their renovations. I think the growth of that program could be unlimited. It could be like a University of Cincinnati.
What do you see as Portland’s challenge, or its Achilles’ heel? A lack of wealth, perhaps?
I think it’s really reaching out and taking some risks. I think it’s the fear of feeling. You have to be willing to risk. I think Sokol Blosser did that. They may not have realized that. To do something really unique, you have to lose control a little bit. You have to be searching for something you can’t see the outcome. That takes a kind of confidence and ambition and courage and all that.
I was just up at the Seattle Art Museum this weekend. Doug Aiken launched his piece “Mirror” on the façade. I was just looking at the culture around the museum and how incredibly strong and bold it was. It just felt so great to be in that room. They did the Olympic Sculpture Park and continue to push themselves as an institution. They do have a lot more resources than we have. But I don’t think it’s all about money. It doesn’t have to be giant acts.
What might be some smaller acts, then?
That Lead Pencil installation on the Eastside streetcar line was a really nice thing for Portland to do. To me that tells you how far we’ve come from Debra Butterfields’s horses at the airport. We’ve come from bronze horses to that piece. It’s a hopeful evolution.
What’s ahead for Allied Works, or what do you want there to be ahead?
We’re getting close to the size we were before the recession. I don’t want to get much bigger. But I think there’s a diversity of projects now.
I’m co-curating a show at the Saint Louis Contemporary with Dominique Malone. That’s another project. That opens in the fall. I’m teaching more. I want to do more of that. If you look at the work now from the National Music Centre to PNCA and Clemson to the show we’re doing on concept models or the book we’re doing, there’s just a lot of creative investigation, and that’s it. As long as we have the clients who will allow us to have that pursuit and ask those questions, I’m really happy. As long as we can keep thinking and making things, it’s fun.