BY BRIAN LIBBY
This Saturday brings the opening of "Case Work: Studies in Form, Space, and Construction" at the Portland Art Museum, a retrospective of the career of architect Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works Architecture.
The exhibit, which features some 60 Allied Works projects over the past decade-plus, is fitting given the status Cloepfil has long enjoyed as the most acclaimed Portland architect of his generation, and given its location in the Pietro Belluschi-designed Portland Art Museum, it's a chance for these top two local practitioners to interact architecturally.
At the same time, what may be most impressive about "Case Work" is that it isn't a simple trophy-case exhibit of pretty photos and renderings with architectural models of the completed buildings sitting on vitrines and pedestals. Instead, this show is about process, and how each Allied Works building is the result of a long, sometimes multi-year process of iteration and idea generation. The works here document that process, and while many of the drawings and models are beautiful, they were not intended as art to be viewed by the public so much as a way of searching for the architecture within each commission. At the same time, Cloepfil and his team designed a fascinating series of wood display vessels for the models, which recall the centuries-old beginnings of museum as cabinets of curiosities.
During a press tour of the exhibit yesterday, Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso offered comments, as did Cloepfil and Dean Sobel, the latter of whom heads Denver's Clyfford Still Museum, which co-produced "Case Work" with PAM. The exhibit first premiered at the Denver Art Museum earlier this year, but it has been altered a bit for the Portland edition. The upstairs exhibit room where "Caseworks" is being shown will be a familiar one to many local museum-goers, for it is where many popular traveling blockbuster shows have taken place. But the proportions of the room are different from normal, because the room has been tailored to fit the installation.
Following are a series of remarks from Ferriso, Cloepfil and Sobel about the exhibit and why Allied Works was given a major art-museum retrospective.
"This project has special meaning to me," Ferriso began. "It’s a project that’s about who we are as Oregonians. It’s a project that speaks deeply to the values that we cherish and those values are about really understanding and appreciating the landscape, and building structures that are responsive to this unique place we live on Earth. And I think it’s a celebration in many ways."
The director then recalled seeing Cloepfil's work for the first time as he came to Oregon to begin his work at PAM. "I had the very fortunate opportunity to be introduced to Brad’s work going back to the Maryhill Overlook. It was a very special moment for me as I looked over the Columbia Gorge and saw this sculptural intervention that defined the space, accented the space, and sort of amplified the space all at once. I thought it was really unique. I scratched my head and I went, ‘This is an architect. This is someone who thinks differently. But it’s not really an architect. It’s a sculptor.’ Brad is a sculptor and we’re going to talk through this a little bit with this exhibition. So I’m thrilled about that."
"People think about this as an architecture show, and I want you to not think about it as an architecture show," Ferriso added. "I want you to think about it as a sculpture show, as a show of space, as a show about objects that are very particular in their handling and in what Brad does in his artistic practice as a sculptor to end up as architecture. I think that’s something that’s very important to recognize as you move through the show."
"There’s something about the scale for artists who build in city blocks or multiple stories. It's kind of extraordinary about how much this firm accomplishes when they think about things at a very small scale," Sobel said.
"There are two things that I take away from the exhibition. One is this emphasis on pure process. I use the example that we all have our own ways of clearing our mind or starting to make decisions in our lives. You may go to the gym or take a walk. I think for Allied Works Architecture they get out a bunch of materials and just start doing things. It’s from that actual activity itself that ideas spring forth. Maybe very small questions get answered during that process but they become very central to the way Allied Works works.
"I also think you’ll notice the interesting way they use and form materials. There are very high-end materials like porcelain and gold leaf and precious metals and magnets from strange locations, but then also roofing shingles and plain timber: the way almost anything can be scavenged, either from the studio itself and what’s laying around or someone goes out and finds a brass instrument that needs to be cut up and used as a sculptural material. I think there is something about the practice that is, again, so much about hand making and craftsmanship. It’s something we certainly notice at the Clyfford Still Museum—I work in it practically every day—but I think you’ll notice as part of the exhibition. Then of course the armature, the way in which the entire installation becomes a kind of thought process as well: the armature that all these Case Work objects are set up [in] is pretty interesting."
"What you see in the sketches and concept models are not images of architecture," Cloepfil said in his remarks before the press tour. "They’re really about ideas. For years and years, and I think Dean, more than some, and Jane [Beebe, of PDX Contemporary Art], looked at the drawings and models and said, 'You should do a show.' These drawings and models aren’t intended to be works of art. They’re intended to be part of a visual conversation in the office. We do these things to inspire ourselves creatively, to pursue the ideas, to try to find the architecture. Doing drawings for architecture can take two years, and then four years to build sometimes. It’s a long process. So we loop back and do concept models at various phases. But from my first charcoal sketches to some of these very abstract things you’ll see in here, they’re really about trying to find the architecture. That’s what it is. It’s a moment."
"I think the other important thing is the decision to finally do the show and to create an installation for the show, rather than just place the objects on vitrines, was really as a proposition piece at a time when architecture is so image-driven, and so much about presenting things," Cloepfil added. "I was saying to someone the other day that it seems like architecture’s role right now is just to decorate cities, and it’s very sad to me, that things aren’t more idea-driven or specific to a city or a place or an institution. And so what you see here is a kind of counter-proposal to that."
"There are no fancy renderings of buildings here. There aren’t any instant images. These are quests, to the point, in fact, that many of our clients will ask me, ‘So is that what the building is going to look like?’ No no no! They hand us all this money to do a building and we have to find it. It takes a very particular client—Dean Sobel being one, Jane being another—who is willing to go on that search with you, to find the right architecture, architecture that’s really appropriate and serves the project. You’ll see that quest here today."
As the formal remarks concluded and we were led into the exhibit, I was impressed not just with the models and drawings and the imaginative cabinets and toolboxes on which the works were mounted, but also the steel framework framing the whole installation. To view the works, one moves in and out of these steel frames, which are shaped like doorways. Although the frames are mostly linear and symmetrical, they are also outfitted with a series of diverting forms that create the illusion of an ajar door, or threshold, through which one is stepping. The effect feels a little bit like walking through a mirrored funhouse like the one famously used by Orson Welles for The Lady From Shanghai.
"It’s implying the opening of a threshold, the thresholds that you’re intended to walk through: sort of opening and closing," Cloepfil said when I asked about the addition of the open-door frames. "It’s very intentional: A sense of the infinite. And each of the objects, the way they…we call it the hall of mirrors. Each of the tool boxes has a kind of operation that implies a kind of infinite unfolding or hinging."
I also asked Cloepfil about the notion of having works unintended for public viewing, and not even intended as art objects, now on display in art. It seems like that insistence, that these are only study models, no matter how artfully they seem rendered after the fact, is freeing to the design team. "Especially in architecture because it’s so public," Cloepfil said. "This is so private, in a way. That’s why I made this sort of toolbox metaphor. These are just our tools, even if they seem very precious and look very precious, in some ways they just are bits. There are thousands of these."
This Portland Art Museum show is also appropriately timed, I think. After Cloepfil's career took off in the early 2000s following the acclaim of the Wieden + Kennedy building, as Allied Works became viewed as a world-class maker of art museums following the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, New York's Museum of Arts and Design and an expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, most all of their most significant and high-profile work was outside of Portland. But in recent years, with projects like the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Schnitzer Center in the former 511 Broadway federal building and the Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room about 45 minutes south of Portland, Allied Works started to feel like a bigger part of the local conversation again.
I'm not sure how many years it would take or if it ever will happen at all, but I believe there has been talk from time to time of the Portland Art Museum possibly expanding onto the block immediately north of the museum's Mark Building (the former Masonic temple). If so, as this exhibit reminds us, Allied Works would make an ideal architect. Until then, however, "Case Work" is a reminder of how Cloepfil is one of our great architects because process is treated as reverentially, it would seem, as the final product.