The Elementalist

Brad Cloepfil’s emerging body of work may symbolize a shift away from glib shape-making toward a more timeless and lasting architecture.

On a rainless Portland day Brad Cloepfil and I walked the seven short blocks from his studio to the massive former cold-storage warehouse that houses the offices of Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising agency that coined “Just Do It.” The building opened seven years ago, but the receptionist still greets the architect by name. Ours is a well-worn path. Every commission of Cloepfil’s since—a formidable and growing list, including five art museums and an office building for Disney—was sealed upon crossing the threshold to Wieden + Kennedy’s central space. It’s easy to see why. In photographs the big central atrium, wrought in concrete and wood, looks intimate and cool. In person it opens up in a way no lens has captured—a visceral neck-snapping surprise that combines the tectonic power of Kahn with the odd wonder of Piranesi. It has been a reputation maker, and justifiably so.

Cloepfil climbed the bleacher seats and paused for a moment on one of the catwalks that cross the main void. An ad guy zipped by on a scooter, and Cloepfil giggled—a high-pitched little sound that came unexpectedly from his big body but seemed to define his attitude toward this and all his work: boyishly bemused at his own good luck on the surface, but in full control to the core. “Whatever it is that you sensed when you walked into the room, that you couldn’t see from a photograph, makes me believe in architecture,” he says.

Cloepfil is an elementalist in an architecture culture in which image is king. With the opening of the Seattle Art Museum in May; the Museum of Arts & Design, on Columbus Circle in New York, next year; and ambitious projects in Michigan, Denver, Dallas, and Glendale, California, coming down the pike, Cloepfil is emerging as a leading American architect of a new type: not a showman or a theorist, not a regionalist or a corporate architect at the helm of a large firm, but a sort of high-art boutique practitioner (meaning he chooses projects carefully) with a burgeoning reputation for powerful, if subtle, buildings.

Sometimes very subtle. Now that the term starchitecture has settled in (as both compliment and swipe) to describe a certain ambition, it remains to be seen whether clients and critics have the stomach for showpiece buildings that don’t fully show up in photographs—for Cloepfil’s kind of build­­ings. But he doesn’t pretend to care. His inventiveness is never about reinvention. Instead, he draws on a deeper font. “One of the things architecture does is communicate in an iconic way,” he explained, back at his studio. “That’s where architecture begins. It just picks up the conversation that’s been going on forever. And that gives me strength because I don’t have to make the new icon. All I’ve got to do is serve architecture.”

For the museums, that inevitably means serving the art—which may explain why the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) opened to nearly unanimous praise, but you could easily walk right past it. “If they were looking for spectacle, they wouldn’t have hired me,” Cloepfil says. Set in the heart of downtown, across from a new Four Seasons hotel-condominium (still under construction) and within sight of Pike Place Market, the building is pervaded by a crisp practicality. The vertically stacked galleries feel perfect, and everyone’s ego has been kept in check, except for the artists’—arguably how it should be. Cloepfil is unmistakably that kind of museum archi­tect. But that doesn’t mean the architecture is secondary. “I like this thought that the vessel can prepare you to see something because of the nature of the vessel,” Cloepfil says with typical quietude. “You walk into the room, and the experience shifts your perception in a way that allows you to be open to new experiences.”

Is this the pendulum swinging back? Undoubted­ly, architecture—and the people who pay for it—are still enthralled with “Bilbao” and the aesthetic determinism of eye-popping buildings. But then look at the list of architects that Cloepfil, still young at 51, has beaten out of commissions: Koolhaas, Hadid, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Herzog & de Meuron, Zumthor. “We wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t someone looking for something else,” Cloepfil says with characteristically underhanded arrogance. “I think it is changing. The cultural shift of the last ten years that has elevated architecture so high is now becoming more diverse. The culture is becoming more confident about architecture, and demanding more. And I think the next ten years will be really interesting.”

As if to prepare, Cloepfil opened a second studio in New York, on a high floor in the East 20s, and has been spending at least one week a month there. Yet he’s insistently not an airplane-seat architect, inking cocktail napkins on tray tables—which may go a long way toward explaining the depth and subtlety of his work. Instead, he draws with pencil and charcoal on sheets of trace paper laid out on a big wooden table in front of a 15-foot-tall window in the Portland studio. A staff of 25 in Portland and 15 in New York fill out Allied Works Architecture, as Cloepfil has long called his practice. “Allied Works came from an idealistic notion of collaboration, which never came to fruition,” he says with a chuckle.

The more lasting founding impulse has been the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. But Cloepfil is not a big-timber and weekend-shack kind of Northwest architect. His touchstones are elemental—less about lifestyle than the inescapable realities of rock and light. He grew up in the Portland suburbs and studied at the University of Oregon and Columbia University, in New York. But his most formidable architectural experience was the Columbia River Gorge. Cloepfil carries himself more like a trial lawyer than a right-brain architect, yet when he talks about the Oregon landscape he becomes emotive, nearly weepy, and his voice cracks. “The awe of that landscape space, the power of those basalt bluffs along the gorge, it’s all there; and for me growing up here, it was that space. That sublime space. And the silence of that. The power of that. And I mean this: the fact that when you get to build, you’re adding a built act in that conversation of powerful places, to me that’s architecture—adding an act of yours to a place that is precious and powerful.” Like the minimalist sculptors he loves—Richard Serra and Donald Judd—Cloepfil finds joy in taking up space.

Last November he won the commission to design the 30,000-square-foot Clyfford Still Museum, in Denver, for a site directly adjacent to Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum. (The losers this time included SANAA and David Chipperfield.) It’s an intriguing project: because the museum is entirely and permanently dedicated to the work of Still, it avoids the “future of art” questions most new museums face. And with Still’s work skyrocketing at auctions while 94 percent of his entire output is held in perpetuity by the museum, it promises to become a significant site in the narrative of American art. Cloepfil cut through the initial field of 23 firms with the kind of insight that’s so penetrating it seems obvious. Rather than looking to the paintings for inspiration, Cloepfil wanted to go to the landscapes they came from: Alberta, eastern Wash­ington, San Francisco—which, not coincidentally, were his own. “It’s not going to the Met, sitting in the middle of a room, and checking that off the list,” says Dean Sobel, the museum’s director, about Cloepfil’s approach. “Brad was asking, ‘Where does this come from? And what clues can we see in his work that may be about the landscape, about the human body and spirit, tactility, light and dark?’”

For the moment, not a single sketch of the museum has been released. Still in the first blush of his architect, Sobel isn’t fazed, but the relative unrenderability of Cloepfil’s work is a remarkable change from most museum projects—undoubtedly a blessing and a curse. Not that the finished buildings suffer; if anything, they gain power for not ­pandering to the camera. But architecture is salesmanship, and Cloepfil doesn’t make it easy for himself. “There are at times frustrations with clients and boards because they always want to know what it looks like,” he admits. “And if you say, ‘We don’t know yet,’ rather than sit at the podium and do a watercolor and say, ‘Here it is’—that’s just not the way we work. It isn’t like I don’t care how a building communicates visually, it’s just not a beginning place.”

Nowhere has this been more challenging than the Museum of Arts & Design (MAD)—although not for the obvious reasons of fund-raising or board approval. Instead, the museum, born out of the major reconstruction of Edward Durell Stone’s Hun­­t­­ington Hartford museum, aka the lollipop build­ing, erupted into one of the biggest New York preservation battles in recent memory, with none other than Tom Wolfe taking to the barricades in the old building’s defense. Cloepfil was mostly spared the brunt of it—at issue was the loss of the old, not the substance of the new—but it’s easy to see how the understatement of Allied Works’ renderings left a vacuum in the public’s grasp of the building’s possibility. There’s an irony in that Cloepfil’s scheme saves the bones and form of the building at great expense. “Everything that is good about it will be retained—its size, its scale, and its intimate relationship to the street,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable (who called it the lollipop building in the first place) in the Wall Street Journal in 2004.

But the combination did not make for an easy project, and the battle scars are still raw. MAD’s director, Holly Hotchner—not known for being smooth as silk herself—may be positive about her unfinished museum’s architecture, but she does not conceal her impatience with her architect. “He presents as a very young, eager, kind of Midwestern guy, even though he’s not from the Midwest. And under that his ego and sense of what he’s doing are as big as anyone else,” Hotchner says. “You’re not offered option B or C, you’re only offered A. And then you learn to live with it.” She adds, “Frank Gehry offered Barry Diller 32 different ideas.” But Cloepfil insists that he runs a “studio” rather than a “practice”—which to him means that it is guided by a “spirit of investigation” rather than trying “to produce a product for a client.” “Clients have to have something they don’t understand, or what do you do for four or five years?” Cloepfil wonders. “That’s a little pompous, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Hotchner counters.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this tension, Cloepfil’s final scheme has an incredible sense of inevitability. Keeping the windowless solid of Stone’s building, it slices a continuous two-foot-wide cut that winds down the facade and across the floor plate. In one gesture it opens up the galleries to views of Central Park, connects the floors to one another, and brings in indirect natural light. But the move is totally illegible in the standard rendering of the building, and only hinted at in a beautiful, if abstracted, charcoal drawing of the unfolded facade. Like much of the architect’s work, it has to be seen in the flesh to be understood—and Cloepfil knows that. So in early May, Hotchner and her architect—visibly rolling their eyes at each other—led a dozen journalists on a tour through the half-completed space. The timing was crucial, and special. The construction workers had finished taking things away and would now begin to slowly fill the space back up.

I’d learned to recognize a recurrent form in Cloepfil’s work: a sort of orthogonal squiggle that twists through space, like the computer game “Snake” but in three dimensions. The Maryhill Overlook—a concrete folly overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, designed in the mid-1990s—is that shape alone, nearly as sculpture. At Wieden + Kennedy, you can see it in the concrete beams that leap across the main space. In Seattle, it’s there in the way the facade wraps the floor plate. And at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the walls of concrete and glass form it folding around each other. At MAD, that squiggle isn’t made from structure but from its absence, to dramatic effect. Something about cutting the box at its corners makes it feel like the building is unfolding like a piece of tectonic origami. It subverts the most basic combination of post and beam. Looking through the cut-out to the city, it becomes clear how different and new this is. SOM’s Time Warner building and Norman Foster’s Hearst headquarters are right outside, crisp and glossy, and shimmering with technological prowess. But this building comes from a different place. More than lightness and air, it is about mass and material. For a museum devoted to craft in an ever changing city, Cloepfil stared back into the fickle spotlight and created something quiet, solid, and lasting.

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