Brad Cloepfil on the Eternal Quest for Awe in Architecture
The architect Brad Cloepfil views his work as less of a job and more of a calling. Sites speak to him. He listens with his eyes. When embarking on a project, Cloepfil slowly feels out the place, studying its particularities closely in order to understand its truest, deepest nature. He and his Portland, Oregon- and Brooklyn-based firm, Allied Works, craft buildings as much as they design them. His are finely tuned, well-wrought structures. Elegantly proportioned and synchronous with their surroundings, they are time-and-space positioning devices that express a fully grounded sense of context and place. In a world full of architecture that tends to skew to the banal and bland or the flashy and brash, Cloepfil—with the economy of a poet—rises above the fray, devising edifices that verge on art. For good reason, he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “I think all of the spaces I’ve designed have been chapels, to a certain extent.”
From the Portland, Oregon, headquarters of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy (2000); to Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum (2011); to, more recently, the U.S. embassy in Mozambique (2021), Allied Works sculpts spaces of meaning and feeling that also serve pragmatic functions. Its projects tend to exude a quiet strength that only seems to grow stronger and more potent with time. Not surprisingly, the firm has become renowned for its designs of museums and arts institutions, including the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2003), the University of Michigan Museum of Art (2009), and the currently in-the-works Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. Cloepfil himself found his way to the field of architecture through art, and as part of his design process creates charcoal sketches and fashions intricate models out of materials such as wood, glass, resin, and porcelain, almost to the point that they become sculptures in and of themselves. For a model of the National Music Centre of Canada (2016), he used cut-up brass from a thrift-store trombone.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Cloepfil talks with Spencer about his multisensorial approach to design and making; how reading, writing, and poetry have shaped his perspectives on the built world; and why all of his buildings are on some level about “amplifying and elevating the idea of service.”
Cloepfil looks back on his first major commission, the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and his friendship with that project’s client, Dan Widen, who died earlier this fall at age 77.
Cloepfil waxes on his philosophies around time and space, and how writing and poetry have shaped his architectural thinking.
Cloepfil speaks of his upbringing in Portland, his undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon, a summer spent building homes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, his time working in the studio of Mario Botta in Switzerland, and his return to Oregon in the early 1990s to start up Allied Works.
Cloepfil agrees to a project-by-project “speed round” (of sorts), going through several Allied Works highlights, including the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2003), the University of Michigan Museum of Art (2009), and New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (2008), touching on the controversy surrounding the latter.
The “speed round” slows down as Cloepfil discusses his career-defining Clyfford Still Museum (2011), then continues with projects such as Eleven Madison Park (2017) and the National Veterans Memorial and Museum (2018) in Columbus, Ohio. The conversation finishes with a brief discussion of the notion of “beautiful ruins.”
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Brad. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
BRAD CLOEPFIL: It’s great to be here, Spencer.
SB: Let’s begin today with a subject we have sort of discussed before, but not quite like this, Dan Wieden. This may seem random to those listening, but just bear with me for a moment. For those who don’t know, Dan was the co-founder of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, which is famous for the “Just Do It” tagline and its work with Nike. And Dan was your first big major client, Brad. A thirty-million-dollar project, Wieden and Kennedy’s Portland, Oregon, headquarters. On September 30th, at age 77, Dan recently passed away. His obit ran in The New York Times at the end of last week. So I wanted to ask, first, how are you thinking about Dan, his legacy, his life, his death, his impact on your life? He changed your life forever. I mean, you’ve previously said, “I owe my career to Dan Wieden.”
BC: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. It’s heartbreaking because he was young by today’s standard. And when you know a mind like that, that is just so expansive and fast and funny, and to watch it slowly diminish and fade away to nothing, it is just completely, completely heartbreaking. He had this uncommon ability to see talent. I remember the woman who invented or created the campaign—the first women’s sports campaign, I think, was called “If You Let Me Play.” I don’t know if you remember that. She [Janet Champ] was a receptionist at Wieden+Kennedy, and he took her and kept putting her in positions and challenging her. And she made one of the most important sports campaigns ever for women. So, he just had this incredible judgment, and then also just the support to draw people out. I mean, it was absolutely insane that he hired me, with my two ex-University of Oregon students, to do a building when I had— [Laughs]
SB: Well, and we’ll get to that moment in your career and that legacy. But I did want to touch on the process of working with him. When you and I spoke almost a decade ago, you told me that he was a “really good architecture critic.” And it seems to me that, especially when you’re an architect working on the kinds of projects you work on and at the level you work on, a building is only as good as its client. Of course, it’s only as good as its architect, too, but the client is like a sparring partner.
BC: Well yeah, for me in particular, it’s such a process of exploring and investigation and testing. It must have been a process that he was used to, because he just instantly joined the conversation. He’d never built a building or house or anything. So it was his first [architecture] project, and I think he was extra excited because of that. But yeah, he just became a part of the conversation so quickly and readily, and then just had the innate ability to ask the occasional question that I couldn’t answer. [Laughs] So I knew that he was right and I was wrong. You know, that kind of thing: “Should the railing really be there?” “Well, no, now that you mention it. I guess it’s really a huge mistake.” So there were various things like that with him where he would just kind of see things. When you’ve just been in a world of ideas for so long that you can shift frames of reference and still just be right in it, just in the flow of it.
SB: This project arguably helped lead to a global shift in office design: more open, more social, more communal. I’m not saying it was the only project that did that, but it certainly contributed. There’s an amphitheater component to the design, a step-seat that has become practically ubiquitous in offices today. I’m sure the learnings from this project no doubt influenced and impacted the designs for other offices you did later on for Pixar, Uniqlo, Theory. How do you think about this impact in your own work and also at large in the world? What legacy do you think this project in particular has?
BC: Well, I think the thing that made, or still makes, Wieden+Kennedy’s headquarters unique is that the very intent of it was to create civic space. Well, there were two intents. One, he wanted to make a factory for ideas, rather than an office space. And then he wanted to make a collective room where four hundred fifty people at the agency could all come together. As the building was being built and nearly finished, I sat in the middle of the atrium space, in the amphitheater space, with Dan, and I said, “Dan, this space is a lot bigger than the agency. This is a space that everyone in the city of Portland will want to use.” It ended up being true. It ended up being one of the most important rooms in the city of Portland.
And just that intent that he imbued that project with, to create that kind of collective place where he could bring in music and speakers and everything, and then it kind of generated beyond itself. So I think that idea of turning a private office inside out is really what that project did. I think that’s the resonance of it, right there, is you can create offices as cities and squares.
SB: It’s also this very decidedly ethereal space. I mean, there’s something almost sacred about the environment you’ve created there. It’s like the cathedral that Nike built.
BC: [Laughter] I guess that’s true.
SB: Do you see it that way? And more generally, how do you think about this notion of sacred space?
BC: Boy. Now you just went right into it, didn’t you? Not even much warm up here.
So in that particular project, and probably coincidentally, in all of the subsequent projects, part of the goal, part of the mission, part of the charge, was to create inspiring space—inspire people to question, to think, to come together. Yeah, to just want to be there and make work. So I think that presence—it’s really interesting. I toured a group of Portland leadership through there when it was built because it got a lot of attention and one of them was a Presbyterian minister, and he said the exact same. He said, “This place is a chapel.”
I know we’ll come back to this, too. I think all of the spaces I’ve designed have been chapels, to a certain extent. for whatever… If you assign the qualities of taking you out of the day-to-day, taking you out of the common into other realms of kind of mystery and wonder. If you experience light in ways you haven’t experienced it, if you experience space in ways you haven’t experienced. It kind of sets your day apart and gives you that sense of being somewhere special, I guess. And isn’t that what architecture is supposed to do? I mean, I think that’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to distinguish a there there.
SB: I should come in here and say that, prior to today’s conversation, you sent over some unpublished writings from a book of reflective essays you’re working on, and in one of them, you note, “When a space creates time, when it affords distance yet offers endless depth—it approaches the sacred,” adding that “Perhaps the most sacred of spatial experiences is awe.” Could you elaborate on this awe? How does a building create awe?
BC: How does a building create awe? I kind of tie awe and wonder together, too.
I think, very hard to define. Very, very hard. Awe is more of a quest than something one achieves, I think. But I think when a building truly locates you in the world—when you think of the most important spaces you’ve been, whether it’s in the landscape or the built realm, unbuilt or the built realm—those are the places that you stop. And then when you stop, you hear things, you see things, you recognize relationships, you become a part of a different conversation. I guess you could say it’s a conversation of the present, as much as anything else.
I think when you walk into profound spaces, and it doesn’t have to be associated with scale, it doesn’t have to be monumental, although I think we associate that with awe a lot of times. But when you walk into profound spaces and sometimes profoundly intimate spaces—Clyfford Still Museum, which is an intensely intimate space—when you walk into those spaces that really cause you to pause and kind of set things down. I feel like we just carry so much all the time. We are sort of stuffing all of our pockets and holding onto things as hard as we can and rushing about. And then when you really stop and set things down—I mean, I know I’ve experienced this, I’m sure you have, too—there’s a sense of expansion. I think certain rooms, certain spaces offer that.
SB: There’s this story you have about Notre Dame, which you went to when you were young. I was hoping you might share that here.
BC: Yeah, that was amazing. That’ll never happen again because it’s…. Well, first of all, yeah, the [2019 fire] tragedy, but then also, just the [tourism] numbers. Yeah, I think it was a winter day and I walked in there for the first time. I mean, a winter’s evening, and I walked in for the first time. At first there was silence, and there were, like, twelve people in it. I don’t know. Can you imagine? It’s incredible. And then, they started practicing the choir and it was transcendent. It was like there was no source. No source of sound. It was solid. It was like visceral, solid sound and space as one thing. And then it was dark. I mean, it was not lit well then. It wasn’t like everything is today—all display, display, display. There were places of great mystery up there that you couldn’t really see. Yeah, it was unbelievably moving.
Those are the spaces. I mean, if you think of the things you remember, too. One of the things that architecture can do, unlike many of the other arts that we produce, is it can create these places of profound memory. And we do have them in landscape and we have it in performance art. You remember certain performances and obviously, relationships with the visual arts, right? But architecture can place you in a space in the world that you’ll just remember for the rest of your life. It’s like a moment. I mean, that’s what keeps me….
SB: Beyond the Notre Dame experience, are there any others from across time that you recall having that sort of stop-you-in-your-tracks, visceral, awe-inspiring response to?
BC: Yeah. I mean, it’s really interesting, when I saw Ronchamp late in life, and studying it, it’s almost like I can’t hear about it anymore. If I see another photo…. It can’t be that good. It just can’t possibly be that good. And lo and behold, it was unbelievable. Probably one of the most perfect sacred spaces I’ve ever been in. But then there’s other simple ones.
SB: Yeah, I had that experience at Eileen Gray’s E-1027. Tiny little house on the coast of France, but just extraordinary in its ability to make you stop and feel.
BC: Right. It’s so nice. And I guess, I mean, we get numb to things when we see too many images of them too. I think that’s part of the things.
BC: Right? Yeah, even worse, right, even now. Just beat us to death. There’s a quote from Pico Iyer that I have somewhere in my files that says something about by the end of the twentieth century, people saw more images in a day than the Victorian era saw in a lifetime. I think that’s a profound statement about how we become numb, too, kind of in a sensory way. Or how hard it is to see, how hard it is to really see when we just get bombarded with things, disembodied things. Disembodiment also is interesting.
SB: Well, I want to pause here on the subject of time. In that same essay I just quoted from, you write, “At the most elemental and the most aspirational, my work is to create space… and perhaps equally important, to create time. Buildings make time—time to be with others, art and music, and yourself. Time to celebrate, work collectively, and think alone. To both lose oneself and ideally find orientation.” And this orientation idea, which obviously is sort of the antithesis of the disembodiment you are just alluding to, I’d love for you to riff on this a bit. Give me the Brad Cloepfil “Time 101” tutorial.
BC: [Laughs] “Time 101” tutorial? Well, I think, the way in for me… There’s so many ways in, but the idea of locating you, I think that’s the offering. That Per Petterson quote from Out Stealing Horses that says, “I have lived in many places. Now I am here.” That’s one of the most profound statements I’ve ever read. Just how many of us actually can say that—“now I am here”—and have that experience in a visceral, meaningful way?
When buildings, when rooms, offer you that, or help you establish a position in the world… I mean, you can’t really see unless you have a positio. Can you? Unless you know where you are, and again, metaphorical in so many ways, right? Unless you know where you are, how can you establish any kind of relative sense of things, and sort of measure, and prospect, and all of those worlds? And I think rooms that are tuned, that are really crafted and tuned thoughtfully, can offer you that sense of position.
SB: Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, but make it architecture.
BC: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But that’s what architecture does. I mean, again, that’s what it has the ability to do, I guess. Doesn’t do it that often, frankly. But it can, I think.
SB: Well, there’s this quality of slowness in your work and your architectural approach that I wanted to mention. The notion of standing still, pausing, listening. These are central components to your process and how you work. I was hoping you might share a bit about your sort of philosophical thinking around this idea of slow, tactile listening.
BC: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I’ve used listening in so many different ways, but I think, I mean, you can listen with your eyes. As an architect—as somebody involved in a practice of visual industry, the production of visual inquiry—I listen with my eyes. You listen with your eyes when you go visit a site, whether it’s a city or a landscape. Sometimes, when I walk onto a site for the first time, I feel like my eyes are half of my body because I’m just trying to see as much as I could possibly see. And see in every way, every way possible—notationally, relationally, try to find a presence there. So it’s almost like seeing with your skin, too, right? What is that presence?
SB: Juhani Pallasmaa.
BC: Is that right?
SB: The Eyes of the Skin, this brilliant book.
BC: Oh, that’s fantastic.
SB: All about it.
BC: Oh really, that’s so fantastic. Yeah, he’s a good writer, too. And then there’s the seeing that’s relative to producing drawings. I sent you that one Jane Hirshfield poem where at the end, I could read the whole poem, but at the end it’s: “And I take the pencil to my ear and I listen.” And that’s drawing. That’s drawing. Drawing is a form of listening.
SB: Makes me think of the Seamus Heaney poem, too, “Digging,” and he’s talking about a pen and says, “Let the squat pen rest. / I’ll dig with it.”
BC: That’s so good because I was—in some of the other writing for this series of essays, I talk about the production of architecture as an agricultural act. That you’re really raising things up, you’re cultivating and raising things up in the way you draw and the way you visualize things. You’re trying to bring latent things forth, just like seeds in the ground.
SB: Writing is also something I want to bring up because you talk a lot about this poetic idea of a calling, and there’s this distinctive wroughtness to your buildings that’s partly, I think, a result of the fact that you actually take the time to write and not just with materials, but with words. Could you talk about the time you’ve spent searching and crafting the language to describe your concepts and buildings and how has that in turn shaped the very structures themselves? Where do you see this link between writing and building?
BC: Wow, that’s something I’ve never talked about. I came to the writing later as a necessity. I think the first writing class I ever took was in undergrad. And I wrote a short story about someone in a room listening to the sound of the ocean and what that did to compress memory and time. And that professor sent it in for a prize, which of course I didn’t win.
BC: Or my career might have taken a different path. But so I came to writing late. I never had any practice.
SB: Well, undergrad, that’s still pretty early.
BC: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. But then once you start designing buildings, you’re trying to present… When you present your ideas, and especially the work that I do and we do at Allied Works, the pursuit is the experience in the space. The form and the image is a resultant that comes out of that pursuit. And so when you’re talking to clients, or you’re giving lectures about the work, and you’re trying to explain what it is, that’s where I came to writing.
BC: Well, I think I also came to it because as I got older, I read more and more poetry. I mean, a lot of poetry now. And I think it’s really no different than early in my career. I think the reason I ended up doing so many art museums and working in the visual realm like that was because I was drawn to paintings and installations and sculpture, because they could do things that I wanted to do. I could see the ideas. They were there in their work. So they were like mentors. They were models and mentors of things that I wanted to try to do in architecture and yet, they did it in painting or sculpture or whatever. So I think as I worked through, as I sort of mined the visual arts to help find the work and to use as kind of checkpoints and signposts along the way, I started doing the same thing with writing.
It was basically just that search to try to find—you know, you find a poem and you just go, “That’s it! That’s it!” That ephemeral thing that we’re all looking for. And then you realize, in the very first book, Occupation, when I was talking to all these other disciplines and individuals as part of that book—I was talking to Doug Aitken and Ann Hamilton and all these people—and then I realized we’re all pursuing the same things. The processes are not that different. The series of ideas come out of this cultural moment in time, and so it’s like this shared conversation. I’m sure it’s exactly the same with the poets and writers.It’s not like I’m writing to write. I’m writing to help try to evoke this ineffable thing that we’re all trying to find.
To get back to your question, the craft of it came out of me trying, and still trying today, to use words to evoke the possibilities of architecture, to try to join up with it. And that’s the essay book that I’ve been working on for the last couple years is just that, to kind of get it all down, the pursuit of it. It means a lot to me. I enjoy it, but it means a lot. Because it’s not like I’m writing to write. I’m writing to help try to evoke this ineffable thing that we’re all trying to find.
SB: Let’s go back in time to your upbringing. You grew up in Portland, and you’ve described your childhood as “idyllic” and “kind of a fantasy life.” What was the house you grew up in like? Do you think this—your family’s house, the neighborhood—was on some level a place of fostering your interest in the built environment?
BC: Yeah, I grew up in a very normative middle class, lower middle class neighborhood in Portland, which was lovely. It still had open fields and woodlots, and it was the suburban fantasy, which lasted about ten years, I think, in American culture, and then got crushed by development. But I was just free. I left the house every day and came home for dinner. That was it, and just explored. So the house was very simple, very nice, two-story, 1920s house.
But it was really the landscape. I got to make forts in the forest and lose myself in meadows of grass that were over my head. It was just a profound sense of place. It’s also where I became really interested in plants and botany and I wanted to be an ornithologist. It was really that sense of place and nature. I knew, I still know, every flower, every tree, every bird, every birdsong. Yeah, I mean what a sense of location. I was thinking about that the other day. When I go, I visited my daughter in Virginia last spring and it was so fantastic to wake up just during migration—perfect, perfect time—and to hear a birdsong that I didn’t know. I could tell I was in a place, I don’t know this place. I don’t know the trees, I don’t know the flowers, and I don’t know the bird songs, so it’s an amazing sense of location when those things kind of stitch you to a place, the things that you recognize. And I guess not everyone pays attention to that.
SB: Well, it’s interesting, it gets me thinking about the musician Andrew Bird who’s done a series of albums based on echolocation. So it’s sort of this call and response he does in these environments with his violin.
SB: So canyon, a meadow—
SB: —and I think what you do as an architect’s not all that different. It’s the pause, it’s the waiting, it’s the listening, it’s the response.
BC: Right. I love that idea of echolocation.
SB: Well, so you go on to study at the University of Oregon, even though as you’ve said previously, you had no idea really what architecture was. I mean, your older brother had at some point started studying it and introduced you to the possibility of it, but you’d always wanted to be an artist. Could you share a bit about your early engagement in art and what were you making? How did that then translate into your architectural training?
BC: I just think I was visual, just a visual thinker from the beginning, from the very, very beginning. Very early on, because I did want to be a botanist, I did botanical drawings, checked out whatever books, cutting sections through flowers, all of those things. So there was that visualization. Also, I was really fortunate. My mother worked for a newspaper and she would bring newsprint, the leftover newsprints, you know, the, whatever they are, the centers, that never got used. And I would roll these rolls of newsprint in the hallway up in the second floor bedroom and could just make these fantasy murals. They’re probably horrible, [Laughter] but I wish I could see one today. I mean, because I could just draw and draw and draw and draw and draw in cities and towns and things. It was so much fun. And so I think just because I was a visual explorer, I didn’t know what art was any more than I knew what architecture was, I just loved to draw.
And then, as I’ve mentioned before, I just didn’t have the courage to tell my parents I was going to be an artist, but I thought I could get away with architecture. So that’s what I did. I think the inquiry, that sense of adventure, the sense of pursuing wonder, whether it’s in the fields and woodlots, whether it’s in more powerful landscapes—in the Columbia [River] Gorge or the high desert—or with a pencil in a roll of newsprint, that pursuit of wonder, I think was in me. Whether I had gone into the visual arts or architecture, it just became a form of practice.
SB: And you and your brother were the first in your family to go to college?
BC: That’s right, yeah. It was hard when you know it’s such a big deal to your family, and that’s why I felt like some responsibility for what I was studying to have some sense of return. Although, the artists I know today are so much more successful than me. [Laughs] I clearly made the wrong choice of career as far as that goes. [Laughs] Yeah, I think I’m the only one to have a graduate degree in my family.
SB: Yeah, so after Oregon, you head to Columbia University for your master’s, but before you do, you spent a summer building homes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.
BC: That was wild. Yeah.
SB: What was that experience like? I mean, what did you learn there? Itust have been really formative, I imagine?
BC: Yeah, I mean the landscape is so amazing because it was out in Browning—that’s the reservation headquarters in Browning. And then living in Cut Bank, a town just east of there in the prairie, which is now mostly wheat fields and things, but in the American prairie. So that sense of space and scale, not like the Pacific Northwest where the landscape is so intimate, was amazing.
But really, working on the reservation, the most profound thing, or the most memorable thing, was just the friends I met. There was a group of three or four architects, but I hung out with guys from the tribe. I played on the reservation softball team. I drove forty miles to drink in a tavern and then another thirty-five miles to drink in another tavern with a twelve-pack of beer on the roof of my car. I mean, that’s what one did in the reservation. So it was a very interesting, I think for me, cultural awareness. I mean, just the reservation life, the kind of brutality of reservation life. People that had gotten scholarships to go play basketball at Montana State or [University of] Montana and quit after the second year, and came back to the reservation.
SB: And what were you building? I mean, these houses were kind of—
BC: Yeah, there was a Blackfoot architect and so he got these contracts to build reservation housing. And we would work with, you develop a series of different components and things, and you sit with the family. And it’s still interesting that the Blackfeet, in particular, too, were a very nomadic culture. And so, you’re giving them a kind of kit of parts to select from andin the end, half of their things are outside. Their cars are right up to the front of their house. There’s sort of no sense of boundary in the dwelling because it just was never a part of their culture. At least in my experience there, they didn’t have the same value for that sense of inside and out, and a here and a there, because it’s all there to them.
It’s interesting, we’re about to start a U.S. Embassy project in Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar, in another nomadic culture that, if it basically hadn’t been colonized by the Chinese and the Russians, I can’t even imagine there’d be much building. So what does one build? I mean, to go back to Montana again and build in that landscape, boy, I would love the opportunity. How do you capture a piece of the Great Plains with a sense of boundary and location? How does one create a “there there” there. I wish we were able to ask those questions then in a government housing program for a native reservation. It wasn’t going to happen, but it was a really interesting time. Amazing time.
SB: So you graduated Columbia in 1985, you go to work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Los Angeles, and then on to Switzerland where you worked for the architect, Mario Botta. Tell me about your time in Botta’s studio. And I’m asking this specifically because you’ve previously mentioned how his work, as well as the work of Tadao Ando, had this really profound impact on you when you were coming up in the field.
BC: Well, it’s because Ken Frampton wrote the foreword to two books, two Electa additions, little square black-and-white books. I guess, weren’t they Italian? I think they were. Basically, for students. And when I was working as an architect in Alaska for a few months, I met these kids from Harvard who had these books and I couldn’t believe the work. It was so beautiful. Mario Botta’s early houses before he got so stylized. I mean, I just fell in love with the work. I’d never seen work so specific to place, so about structure, and with my university education with the folks that had come from [Louis] Kahn’s office.
So that language, to see it new, applied to different cultures and places. But the legacy of that thinking was the first time I’d ever seen it, so I was inspired. And I was afraid to go to Japan, but when my girlfriend, who later became my first wife, got out of law school, she said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to go to Switzerland and work for Mario Botta.” And I think one of the great takeaways was Switzerland is made up of a lot of small towns, very small towns, and you’d see these beautiful pieces of architecture, ones that weren’t at that time, even in the books, made by Livio Vacchini and Luigi Snozzi and a lot of regional architects living in these small villages, doing these exquisite little houses.
BC: Yeah. At that time, you would see a garage in Switzerland that you would never see a piece of architecture that good in all of the United States. I mean, there was such a rich culture. And that’s what inspired me to think, Maybe someday I could go to Portland, Oregon, and try to do this. Because if they can do it in these little mountain villages, even with the history and culture, obviously, but if you could do that, there might be a way.
SB: Well if there’s anything that the Pacific Northwest shares with Switzerland, I would say it’s craft tradition.
BC: Right. Right.
BC: Yep. No, that has a huge impact on that. I mean, the two big impacts on my work, the two things that influence the making, I guess, one, the legacy of Kahn’s teachings, and then the craftsmanship of the Pacific Northwest—a kind of deep love of making beautiful things and spending the time to render detail. I love the realization, it was probably ten years into my career, where I really understood the difference between your eye and your hand, kind of perceiving a piece of architecture, again, whether it’s your eye or your skin, and then finding your scale in it, which is really your hand.
We talk about that in the office: “Where’s the hand? Where’s the place where I finally recognize how big I am, relative to this whole space or landscape or city or whatever it is?” And that’s where detail comes in. Without that, you’re placeless. I mean, without that you can’t find your measure. And sometimes that sense of being lost is good—back to the wonder and awe. But I think without any reference of where you are from a scale point, I think it’s a lot harder to go on that journey because otherwise it’s just disorienting, which we encounter a lot, don’t we, in buildings and cities, I think.
SB: Let’s go back to Kahn for a second. For the listeners who don’t know: Louis Kahn. Could you talk about what about his philosophies, his thinking, so captured or enraptured you?
BC: Right. He talked about the will of buildings, the will of a material, that material and structure has a presence and a being. He was a deeply spiritual thinker.
SB: He talked to materials. There’s the book You Say to Brick: [The Life of Louis Kahn].
BC: Right. Right. Yeah. I asked the brick, “Where does it want to be? And it said an arch or something.” Badly paraphrased. But in the mid-seventies, when I was at the University of Oregon, is when he passed away and about six or seven of his students and employees came, and basically took over the University of Oregon. And I was lucky enough to be going to the only state program of architecture at that time. So I had this incredible design education and structures education. Just being presented with the poetic possibilities of building, which still is rarely discussed, then was rarely discussed, now is rarely discussed, and that the poetic possibilities of structure, I mean, I always think of structure as the paint of the painting. It’s what we have as architects. That’s what makes architecture distinct, is structure, how the building is made, what places it in the world. How it stands in the world is the primary means of communication that we have, and that all comes from…
And it’s interesting, why did Ken Frampton choose Mario Botta and to go on to write about it in the very beginning? Because it was part of that legacy, but applied in these intensely regional, local ways.
SB: So you return to Portland, you found Allied Works in 1994, eventually get a small commission to design two handicap accessible bathrooms—
SB: —and a bar, for two thousand dollars, plus a bar tab.
BC: Right. Exactly.
SB: What happened next?
BC: There you go. Well, it was rough, I mean, like every young architect. You know, there were some house editions and things like that. But this loops back to… Well, there’s two things. Two things, and I can’t remember what came first. My first art commission was for Jane Beebe, a tiny little art gallery for her. And I designed a single room with no corners, where the corners were doors. It was thinking of Soane’s house a little bit, thinking of a kind of, was it a early—
SB: Sir John Soane, amazing house.
BC: Yes. Right. And then also it was either Mary Miss or Alice Aycock, early piece that was just a series of doors. And mine was to make the room feel bigger than it was. And also, it was a gallery by appointment, so Jane could open the doors and show art on either side because it was such a tiny room, so it was a way of expanding the room. But anyway, that was my first. I still love that project, actually. That was my first art space. And then about that time is when I met Kristy Edmunds, who was starting something called the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. And Kristy is now the director—
SB: MASS MoCA.
BC: She’s the director of MASS MoCA. I’m going up there tomorrow to see her, by the way. But she was just starting that, and so I really wanted to meet her. And then it was about that time… Oh, back to the bar, gosh, you really, this is all weaving together. I haven’t thought about this in so long. So I got a call from one of the partners at Wieden+Kennedy who was sitting at the bar that I did for two thousand dollars.
SB: And a bar tab.
BC: Yeah, and a bar tab, which was critical with my two employees. I think one of them was only part-time then, so one and a half employees. And I got a phone call from a partner at Wieden+Kennedy saying, “I got your number from the bartender at Saucebox. We are looking to do a new headquarters building and wondered if you want to talk about it. But, we only want to see your contemporary work. As if I had, first of all, I don’t know what work I had to show in general. I used to have one of those little message pieces of paper, that you “Message From.” I used to have that somewhere, it’s in a file maybe.
But anyway, that’s how the Wieden+Kennedy process began. And one of the first meetings with them, it’s actually how I got started in art space because then we built a space for PICA in the Wieden+Kennedy building. And that’s kind of how the whole thing took off. But the first time I met with Wieden+Kennedy and the partners, and Susan Hoffman, and others, and John Jay, I took out a book I had on Donald Judd’s studio at Marfa, and I passed around the book. And I said, “Isn’t the space we all want to work in? We don’t want to work in office space. We want to work in this space.” And that’s how I started the discussion with them.
SB: And then over the past three decades, starting with the Maryhill Overlook, you’ve built this incredible body of work. And I do want to hit most of the highlights in the time we have. So in the interest of keeping this conversation forward, I want to do a sort of project-to-project speed round.
SB: So just tell me what immediately comes to mind for you when I mention each project. It can really be top of mind. You can go long, you can go short.
BC: This is like a parlor game.
BC: What’s the first thing you associate with these? [Laughs]
SB: So let’s start with the Maryhill Overlook.
BC: That was a project I made happen, and I’m starting to do this again. So—
SB: The Sitings Project.
BC: Right. I wrote this thing when I came back to Portland after I left Columbia, I wanted to start my own practice. I was working for Tom Hacker, one of my mentors from University of Oregon/Philadelphia. And I really wanted to do my own work, but I didn’t have any, and I was just working as an architect. I wrote this position piece that it mattered—where you built, mattered to what you built, which to me seemed obvious. It’s interesting, it’s not that different than today. Different style of architecture, but it’s still a time that is ruled by style and image, architecture as commodity, rather than architecture as thing. So I wrote this piece saying that architecture begins with the site, and then I proposed five different sites: city, rural, suburban, forest, desert.
BC: Yeah, yeah. So I proposed five different sites and started developing drawings. And then I think, oh, I was teaching the Sitings Project as a summer studio at University of Oregon. I met the director of the Maryhill Museum and we just hit off a conversation, and she let me do a show of the Sitings Project. Oh, because we used her museum’s grounds for one of the pieces, for the desert piece. And the students, so I designed this whole installation, showed the student work. And then while I was talking to her, I said, “How about if we build one? How about if you let me design a Sitings piece on the grounds of the Maryhill Museum?” And she’d got her grant writers to get highway interpretive funds. I think it was a hundred thousand dollars, and we got to build that little Maryhill Overlook piece.
SB: Which is sort of Judd-like, actually.
BC: Yeah, that’s hard. That’s hard, that’s hard, because obviously I’d seen the pieces there. But what I was trying to do was build a wall in an infinite landscape. And how does one begin to define location? By building a boundary. It’s a very harsh landscape, so concrete was an obvious choice. And also, the only people that would build it were highway overpass contractors, so concrete was their language as well. But that little ribbon, one hundred fifty foot long ribbon of concrete, was a hollow wall where you could sort of find your place, find some form of reference in that landscape.
SB: Okay, next one. We can keep this one brief.
SB: Well, maybe not. Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
BC: Ah. Well, that was first museum project. I owe that project to Terry Riley, my good friend who passed away not too long ago. He was curator of architecture at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] at the time and Emily Pulitzer came to him to do a shortlist, which there’s some really funny stories about the interviews, but we don’t have to go into that.
SB: Well, and I believe it’s your first project outside of Portland.
BC: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, our first project outside of Portland.
SB: Also worth mentioning it’s next door to Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Arts Foundation which… How incredible this—
BC: Which is terrifying.
SB: … this architect who you studied, admired.
BC: Yeah, it was terrifying. It was terrifying. And in one week, I met Tadao Ando and Richard Serra, talk about intimidating young architect from Portland, Oregon.
SB: And beating out Rem Koolhaas and Peter Zumthor for the commission.
BC: Right, which I think Terry had something to do with talking Emily Pulitzer out of that one. But this is what I was told, I won that project because I compared the Ando building as a cupped hand, facing the ground, closed. It’s a cloister. It’s that way. And that I wanted to create a building that was open, a cupped hand open to the sky. I think there’s some Corb allusion in that, but it wasn’t intended as such at the time. But I wanted a building that was open. So it’s interesting that Ando creates such bounded form, and with those two ribbons of concrete, we created an open web.
SB: Next one, Museum of Arts and Design, in New York.
BC: Wow. So I still contend they chose this young architect from Oregon because they knew how naïve I was to walk into that controversy.
SB: I mean, this project was tricky, beyond tricky. Probably the trickiest of projects. Really, like an impossibility for any architect.
BC: Right, and I was so earnest and excited, I took it on.
SB: I would guess you would never imagine though, that you’d have Tom Wolfe lambasting you in The New York Times for actually this sort of capital E, “Ephemeralism,” calling it a religion, basically. “Architect Cloepfil,” he called you as if you were some dictator for this new architectural style of high taste.
BC: [Laughs] Right. What’s also interesting about that, my good friend David Shipley, whose apartment I’m staying in right now, was the head of the editorial page and let Tom Wolfe roast me two different times and now we’re good friends. I don’t know how I let that one go.
SB: Did you ever meet Tom in person?
BC: I wish I could have actually because I love the way he dressed. Oh, my God.
SB: Did he roast you both times for the MAD museum?
BC: Oh, yeah. He got to do it as a series. Once wasn’t enough apparently. No, I got it twice. Two things most excited about that is that we didn’t build anything. We created architecture by cutting a negative space into a solid inert object, the two foot slot. And that’s how the light comes in and how the spaces are joined in section and—
SB: Sculpting light.
BC: Yeah, that was it. Yeah. A ribbon of light. That’s how we made that space. And then the cladding, the iridescent tiles were all about the play of light.
SB: The form’s actually not all that different from Maryhill Overlook in an interesting way.
BC: The ribbon, yeah. That comes up. I mean, Frampton wrote about that—that ribbon, the Maryhill Overlook, and then the Duchess County guest house. And I think the ribbon, that kind of a sense of meander and labyrinth in the infinite, again, goes back to some of our discussions about awe and wonder and mystery.
SB: Next one, University of Michigan Museum of Art.
BC: Ah. Yeah, first sort of proper museum project, I guess, and adjoining a neoclassical, really sweet little neoclassical [Alumni] Memorial Hall. That was really a site piece as much as anything else. We were building on one of the most used paths from the student union through the historical heart of campus, the original forty. And so with a series of steel and glass bents and limestone walls interlocking, we tried to just capture both light and the students. That as they move through this, kind of force them to move—well, they literally move through the building in the winter, which is a big part of life in Michigan. The paths that are outside turn to paths inside, through buildings. And just try to make them engage in the spatial quality of the building and make them engage in the art, so it becomes a part… We built the building right on the ground, no piano nobile. There’s an immediacy. It was all about immediacy of the art to the students.
SB: You mentioned this idea of it being so potent as a site and siting is so much a part of what you talk about when you talk about architecture. Again, in one of your unpublished essays, you write, “By changing our definition of ‘site’ from static property to a dynamic potential, we exponentially increase the possibilities and consequences of interaction.”
SB: How’d you think about that site? And did you anticipate, for example, that the building would one day be wrapped by a jute sack installation—
BC: I love that piece so much. Yeah, I’ve written about this and other things that I suppose the highest aspiration of the art space we make is if…. Here’s another way of saying it. If we manifest the qualities of site—the presence and energy of a place—if we manifest some of that and kind of amplify qualities of that in a building, if the building becomes the amplifier of qualities of site, then the greatest aspiration for me is that that building then becomes a site for the art. And that is a perfect, perfect example.
SB: This is such a good segue because I want to get to the Clyfford Still Museum, and maybe here we have to slow down a bit and do a quick pause because this is an extraordinary project. And I don’t use the word extraordinary when talking about architecture very often. [Laughs] I’ll happily do so here. It’s a building that captures, I think, everything we’ve been talking about in this conversation.
I know that I’m not alone in thinking this. Everyone who visits has some sort of awe-inspiring response. The architect Robert McCarter has called the museum a “canonical masterwork.” Shortly after it opened, the architecture critic John King tweeted that it is “the best fusion of architecture and art I’ve encountered in a decade.” Paul Goldberger responded to that tweet, writing that it’s the “best small museum in the U.S. in years.” I mean, some high praise. And now that it’s been a decade—and I know you answered this when we were in Denver earlier this year, for that tenth-anniversary panel discussion, but—how are you thinking about this project in particular, it’s impact not just on you, but on the city of Denver, on the legacy of Clyfford Still, and, grandiose as this may sound, the world of architecture?
BC: I don’t know about that last one, but… Well, maybe I’ll talk about how it happened a little bit. I got that project when we as an office had matured. We knew how to build what we considered. I was just getting to a point where I knew that my thinking and our ability to build were one. I’d been working with Chelsea Grassinger, Kyle Lommen, Dan Koch, people that for so long, at that time, and I’m still working with them, where we could finish each other’s thoughts and where I could do my ambiguous charcoal sketches and they knew exactly what was present in them. And so I think that gift for me, of having that relationship with people, to develop it—yeah, Brent Linden was on that—to develop that work with those people, I could go as far as I wanted to go. There were no longer any limits to what I thought we could do.
And then I knew Still’s work. I saw it at the Met when I was at Columbia. And so it was like being asked to be a part of a conversation that I’d been a part of forever. He grew up in the Dakotas and did paintings of that landscape and the hoodoos in Southern Alberta and then he taught in the Palouse in Washington State. And so I think, he adamantly resists any figurative associations, but his early paintings were all landscapes. And a lot of the language in there, you see it go all the way through. So to me, it was just a visceral connection to the work at a time when I was most confident in the language of the architecture. I mean, when that came up, I just thought, If ever there was a commission for us and me, that would be it.
SB: And there’s this great story you tell. So yes, you’re advanced, you have the team in place, your work has matured to a point enough that you’re able to get that kind of commission. But, you’ve told this great story to me about how about a month before it opened, you walked in and the paintings weren’t on the walls yet, but the building was ostensibly done, and your heart sank. I’m hoping you might just explain what happened.
BC: Yeah. [Pauses] Well, for me, the charge or the given of making space for art is that you’re trying to tune a void, to either receive a collection, amplify a collection that you know, or inspire work that you don’t know. And you’re crafting this void. And the Still Museum was such a response to the site and the kind of verbosity of the Libeskind and a lot of the other surrounding buildings. And so that bringing the building to the ground, anchoring it with concrete, creating this sanctuary for this work, and then opening it up with light.
So I flew through—this is what you’re referring to—and I saw it empty, and I was heartbroken because it was too much about the architecture. The scale didn’t feel right. I mean, nothing felt right. I was devastated. It was awful. I went back and talked to the staff. And then a month later, at the opening, it just snapped into place with the art. Literally, it all made sense. And I know that sounds kind of silly and obvious in some way, but I think what people respond to in that building is how the building and the art and the light are just one thing.
SB: Yeah. You can’t talk about this building without talking about light. There’s this almost-liquid light there. I mean, it makes me think of all these other incredible spaces when it comes to light. You have the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris—
SB: Or Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, [Texas]—
SB: The Rothko Chapel in Houston—
SB: Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light, or the Chichu Museum in Naoshima, [Japan]. Sorry, Tom Wolfe, but if there’s a religion then I’m all in on this one.
BC: [Laughs] Yeah, well I was just so excited. Those paintings are so powerful and the color is so critical. I didn’t give the director [Dean Sobel] a choice. I just said, “We have to put these in natural light.” And luckily, the technology exists for light control. I mean, again, it was the exact right moment in history where we could really do that and still protect—you know, half of his paintings have bare canvas or almost bare canvas.
SB: There’s also a time capsule-like element to this building.
SB: What’s your take on time in relation to the Clyfford Still Museum?
BC: Well, you have to be more specific than that. What’s my take on time? I want to make you work harder for that one.
SB: The archive.
BC: Oh, that.
SB: The notion of, it is, on the one hand, a sort of memorial, but it’s very much an active space.
BC: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I guess it is sort of a memorial, just all things Clyfford Still. To me, I didn’t think of it that way, I just thought of it as a… Because of the scale of the building and the way we designed it, so you see into all the rooms almost simultaneously. That way of being present in a space with the work, yet connected to the whole body of the building and the whole body of his life. It’s just a kind of intense… And I think this is another thing people respond to: intense intimacy. I mean, how many times do we go to an art space and get to feel that intimately connected? Art spaces are so often just big, open rooms and it relies on the skill of the preparators and the curators to kind of scale it to a show.
SB: You sink into the paintings.
BC: Yeah. You’re just kind of there. I think that’s a huge part of why people like that space. It’s so rare to be that intimately connected. Somewhere in some writing on that, I spoke of it, the building basically stands you with the art. You stand with the art and it’s just you and the painting, and you’re in the whole body of the building. You’re just in the presence of his mind and his intent. Yeah, that’s a gift.
SB: Back to the speed round.
BC: Not so speedy.[Laughs]
SB: Let’s do this one in twenty-five seconds.
BC: Okay, right. We’ll get speedier on this one.
SB: Eleven Madison Park.
BC: Eleven Madison Park. The chance to work in that gorgeous room, which I had known forever, courted my wife in that room. And then to work with two people at the time who were at the top, top, top, just gifted, Will Guidara in the front of the house and Daniel Humm in the back of the house. You know, to work with them, I mean, people who were… I’ve had Dan Wieden, I think I would categorize as a genius in his field, I think that’s not surprising. I’ve worked with others, but to work with the two of them, I think, who are geniuses in their own practices at the time when they were at the top of their field was a gift. And then I got to design plates, tableware. I got to design the rooms for Daniel’s food, which—
SB: I think time’s up.
BC: All right.
SB: Sorry, we gotta keep going. [Laughs]
BC: Yeah, yeah, that’s good.
SB: The National Music Centre of Canada.
BC: I was just there this weekend. It’s a landscape piece. It is a landscape. It’s landscape-scaled. I mean, because it was a building that kind of manifested the history and aspirations of music as an art form for a nation, monumentality. We talked about it. It’s time to really make something that has the presence of a national aspiration. And we used the hoodoos in Southern Alberta as the inspiration, the landforms.
SB: Well, I feel like I have to mention this now, very tired [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe theory that “architecture is frozen music” because I think it would be more accurate to just say that without the “frozen” part. Because, I mean, we’ve been talking about it, architecture isn’t frozen. It’s an active thing. How do you think about music in the context of your architecture? And I’m thinking here, not just about this National Music Centre project, but also your finalist entry into the Arvo Pärt Centre in Estonia. There’s also a sort of musical undertone to your finalist entry for the U.K. Holocaust Memorial.
SB: You even built a model for the National Music Centre out of a trombone.
BC: Right, a trombone. To me, it’s all a series of vessels. I mean, I make empty rooms. That’s what I do for a living. All of those projects are trying to find a potent vessel, whether it’s for a painting or a piece of music. So yeah, it’s not any kind of literal illusion or compositional reference or anything, other than back to that—you’re making a room for your ears and you’re making a room for your eyes. And that’s a different charge. There’s no question about that.
And the cool thing in the National Music Centre, I’d just heard—or I’d just been to David Byrne’s piece and met him playing the building when it was down at one of the piers, I forget which building it was in. The old pier building, or the old ferry terminal building, sorry, where he had hooked up an organ to all the steel members and it was kind of amazing. And so in the National Music Centre, we designed this little 250-seat performance space and working with Josh Dachs, a theater designer, a performing-space designer. And we just wanted the whole room, the whole building, to be filled with sound. So when the performance space slides open, the entire building, six stories—
SB: Becomes an instrument.
BC: Becomes an instrument. Thank you.
BC: That was very moving, very, very moving. For me, a different subject. Not the arts, but very… I’d been thinking about this idea of service. Hadn’t written about it yet. That what one serves in one’s life, and to me from the very beginning, that was what these people are giving up their time, they’re giving up their lives, their families, to serve. No matter what you think of how they serve, or where they serve, or the political context of that service. Those are all very important things, but just to manifest something that memorializes or really elevates. I mean, if all these buildings are about amplifying and elevating some quality, it’s really about amplifying and elevating the idea of service.
And it was amazing, I got to meet Senator John Glenn before he passed away, and that was one of the things he spoke about. And he spoke about it so eloquently and so powerfully. I’m not talking about the architecture at all, am I?
At the end, the opening of that museum really was one of the most moving experiences. I had generals come up and thank me because no one had done a building for servicemen, just the men and women who just do this.
SB: And architecture is orientation. I mean, this building is a spiral. It’s an earthwork coming out of the ground.
BC: Right and that was—
SB: It’s basically a compass.
BC: Right. Right. Yeah, because the site was very undistinguished at the time, and we knew it would become a very important marker for Columbus, there on the river and across the bridge. Yeah, the first act was a landscape.
Well, the first act was to make a room in the sky, to create a processional, the spiral ramp up. And then this, what I call “the sanctuary,” where there could be all kinds of services, celebrations, where veterans and their families could come together in that room in the sky, held by this building.
SB: There is an otherworldly-like quality to this building. I mean, it’s one of the most real, rendering-like pieces of architecture. I mean, it almost looks like a render. It doesn’t look like it should exist on earth.
BC: I don’t understand what that is, actually, either. It’s true, isn’t it? I mean, there’s so many ways to talk about that building because the structure of that building, they’re essentially cantilevered, I don’t know, fragments of arches that are held in tension on the top, so they’re one of the most difficult things to build. I don’t know how we got that thing built. So, again, back to that thing where if I think of how to hold up that processional and that sanctuary in the sky, to lift it up with these concrete arches that are falling outwards by nature and being held together by the sanctuary, and just to create a there there with that structure. Yes, without question, one of the most difficult pieces of construction.
SB: All right, last one. Let’s keep this under sixty seconds.
BC: Sixty, okay.
SB: The U.S. Embassy in Mozambique.
BC: Hmm. Ten acres on the Indian Ocean in a town that had, or in a country, that had just gotten over, I don’t know, twenty years of civil war. Understanding why we build embassies, which is a—
BC: Fraught and multifaceted. And to try to develop a language that is of that place. And also, back to the National Music Centre conversation, manifests, communicates something about our nation and what we aspire to and hope for, and what we want people to feel when they see the building. And the goal was to make it transparent. Even though with all the security concerns and all the other things, to not have it be cloistered and walled and bounded and make it blur and blend with the place.
SB: We did it. That’s great.
I want to end on the notion of buildings as beautiful ruins. This is something you spoke about earlier this year during an online Cooper Union lecture and interview with Nader Tehrani. And you said that the “first act of building is the last act of building.” I really love this idea so much. I would hope that more architects take heed to that idea. And I was hoping you could speak to it further. This idea of architecture across time, perhaps even as a ruin, still standing in some form long after humans have vanished from this planet.
BC: And it’s not about the romanticism of it. It’s not about holding its place in history, like the [Roman] Forum or other iconic ruins. But it’s about—it still holds its presence. So you encounter this, I mean, you see it in the first marks on the page of charcoal when it’s right. You see it when the structure rises from the ground. I mean, that’s when we know if we found it or not. Or we know what we found, is when that structure rises. I mean, the Veterans Memorial was a perfect example of that. Before it was glazed and it stood, it was both a ruin and a construct at the same time and it was kind of unbelievable that way. But it’s the presence, it’s the life. It’s the extension of that presence through time. I think that’s the thing, that it kind of transcends time. Because those presences are in our lives every day, and the buildings, if they can, they just capture it and hold it for us.
SB: Brad, I think we’ll end there. That was beautiful and thank you for putting up with my speed round. Your portfolio of work really is special, and I wanted to be sure to touch on as much as we could.
BC: Well, that was a fun test, so thanks. It was really a great conversation, as always.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 17, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.