When will Brad Cloepfil buildings rise in Portland?

The city's best architect can be seen inside the Portland Art Museum, but rarely on the city's streets

By BRIAN LIBBY

This summer, the work of architect Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works Architecture, has been a leading story in in local design and arts circles in a way that has, for all the acclaim justifiably heaped on the firm over the past decade, rarely been the case. With the Portland Art Museum’s “Case Work” exhibit (running through September 4), an imaginatively conceived retrospective of the firm’s work, as well as a soon-to-be-completed renovation of the mid-century Pietro Belluschi designed Oregonian headquarters on Broadway downtown, Allied is finally starting to make its mark on the city again.

The Portland Art Museum's "Case Work" exhibit documented the Brad Cloepfil process at Allied Works/Photo by Brian Libby

The Portland Art Museum’s “Case Work” exhibit documented the Brad Cloepfil process at Allied Works/Photo by Brian Libby

What’s yet to be determined, though, is whether the firm’s genius for transforming old buildings is pigeonholing Cloepfil and his group of talents when they should be designing a lot of new architecture for the city.

Since emerging onto the national architecture scene with the award-winning and oft-published Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency headquarters design in 2000, Cloepfil has been widely regarded as the top Portland architect of his generation. But after W+K (and the exquisitely glassy 2281 Glisan mixed-use building completed the same year), Allied’s international reputation was made almost entirely on projects outside of Oregon. First came the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2003 (won via a design competition over some of the world’s most famous architects); then a major expansion of the Seattle Art Museum in 2007; and in 2008 a transformation of the Edward Durell Stone-designed Huntington-Hartford Building, a proto-postmodern landmark sitting prominently on Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park, as the new home of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York. Numerous museum and arts-building commissions followed, culminating in the magnificent Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, completed in 2011, and the stunning National Music Centre of Canada this year.

When I profiled Cloepfil in 2003 for The New York Times, what directors of some of those museums collectively said was that Cloepfil was a great communicator, and that “he could involve himself in both the minutiae of the program and a big-picture concept,” as Holly Hotchner, then-director of the Museum of Art and Design, put it. Cloepfil has always been a lover of visual art, citing such artists as Richard Serra and Robert Irwin as important an influence on him as any architect—almost as if they taught him how to be an architect: by breaking down architecture into a series of rooms, each conceived as a single gesture, guided by dramatic penetrations of natural light into the space.

The Allied Works-designed renovation of the Museum of Arts & Design on Columbus Circle (right) in New York/Photo by Brian Libby

The Allied Works-designed renovation of the Museum of Arts & Design on Columbus Circle (right) in New York/Photo by Brian Libby

“It just resonates with you,” Cloepfil said of his artistic passion in a 2008 interview with Arcy Douglass and Jeff Jahn for the PORT blog. In the 1970s, as the architect attended the University of Oregon and then Columbia University in New York, “It just seems like those guys understood more about the intentions of 19th and 20th century architecture than the architects did. They had clarity of thought and a practice that was built on the exploration of material that became very important to me. The singular act of focus to create a work of art was really impressive. It was also easier to learn from the artists because their work is so pure. By that I mean the work that I was interested in was focused on the exploration of only one or two ideas. Buildings tend to be more complicated.”

No matter how many small details there are, he learned from visual art not to lose the plot, and there was no better client for that kind of uncompromised expression than a big-budget arts facility. But Portland has always lacked wealth compared to even neighbors like Seattle, let alone New York and Los Angeles. We just don’t build many buildings like that.

For most of those 16 years between W+K and now, Allied has realized a few projects in its home city, namely houses: an expansion of W+K creative director John C. Jay’s Pietro Belluschi-designed home in 2004, the speculative Macleay View House for Jay and boutique builder Don Tankersley in 2008, and perhaps most impressively of all, the hillside Portland Heights residence in 2009, a series of interconnected cedar-clad pavilions. Through the decade there were unbuilt, might-have-been projects as well, such as a waterfront fire station and a lost commission to design Oregon Health & Sciences University’s Center for Health and Healing (the first building for the medical school on its new South Waterfront campus).

Why wasn’t Allied Works doing much in Portland for several years? Part of it was surely that the firm was preoccupied with those out-of-town museums. I also suspect that Cloepfil is, while certainly very charismatic, not a schmoozer or someone who likes to dumb down a pristine design. That’s not to say the firm can’t compromise or that Cloepfil is a prima donna, but sometimes condos and offices can be budget-driven exercises in which a spec developer is concerned more with the bottom line than getting an Architectural Record cover—or spending what it takes to get there. And while Portland enjoys a robust array of design talent, even when the developers aren’t overly budget-conscious, their idea of great design is often more about going green.

Gerding Edlen, which developed the W+K headquarters, went on to build several new Pearl District buildings north, southeast and west of that renovated warehouse, including the popular Brewery Blocks (designed by GBD Architects, even today a frequent Gerding collaborator), which were innovative in their pursuit of LEED ratings for sustainability and energy efficiency. But despite their very admirable green credentials, these projects are united by how aesthetically tame they are, not at the level of rigor or beauty that Cloepfil might have brought. The same might be said of such public-sector clients as some of Oregon’s universities, which tended over the past decade to hire talented, sustainability-oriented firms without the reputation of Allied for world-class architecture.

In recent years, however, Allied Works’ presence here has begun to grow again. It began modestly, with small but eye-catching projects like the Creative Arts Center at Southwest Portland’s Catlin Gabel School in 2013 and the magnificent Sokol Blosser Winery Tasting Room in rural Yamhill County that same year. But what really brought Allied Works back to Portland in a big way was the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design, the new home of the Pacific Northwest College of Art completed in 2014 inside the re-imagined early 20th century former federal building, on Northwest Broadway straddling Old Town and the Pearl.

Interior of the renovated the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design at Pacific Northwest College of Art/Courtesy PNCA

Interior of the renovated the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design at Pacific Northwest College of Art/Courtesy PNCA

As with the Wieden + Kennedy building, Allied’s big move was an elementary but transformative one: cutting a large atrium into the middle of the space and filling it with light. Though the developer was the same as W+K (Gerding Edlen), the budget was smaller, and the design-build format meant Cloepfil and company didn’t have the final say in some of the small material and construction details the way they would have liked, which in turn means that the Schnitzer Center is not quite the masterwork W+K is, even if it’s a magical space to behold when you stand inside that atrium.

But that’s not to say the firm’s talents have diminished—not at all. If anything, the stable of talent at Allied is stronger than ever, and it has resulted in a new level of sophistication and beauty. Though the National Music Centre of Canada won’t receive as much attention from the design press as some of his past works because it’s in a relatively small Canadian city (Calgary), it is a stunning architectural structure that goes beyond what we thought we knew about the firm’s signature style. One almost imagines this being the kind of building that the great Louis Kahn (to whom Cloepfil is connected via his old professor and boss, Thomas Hacker, who worked and studied under the master) would have built were he still working today. There have also been numerous unbuilt works that, at least in renderings, looked sublime, including a proposed Obama library in Hawaii and the Arvo Pärt Centre in Estonia, a museum devoted to the acclaimed composer.

Cloepfil’s latest major renovation, the Oregonian building, rechristened 1320 Broadway as part of its transformation into creative office space, reminds us again of his firm’s unquestionable talent for renovations. Granted, a big part of the metamorphosis is just uncovering what’s there. While freelancing for the paper in the 2000s, every time I’d visit the Oregonian offices I’d think to myself, “This building feels like the opposite of a Pietro Belluschi design,” so oppressively low-ceilinged and lacking natural light. And sure enough, grand multi-story spaces that were part of the original design, be it the lobby or the double-height fourth floor space that initially hosted KGW’s television studio. But Allied’s design, as a recent Architecture Foundation of Oregon fundraiser held there demonstrated, does more than right the wrongs of previous renovations. The lobby, for instance, is a gorgeous interweaving of wood and shiny glass, creating a subtle demarcation between the first floor and the mezzanine while introducing a sense of multi-paneled reflectivity that faintly recalls the famous hall-of-mirrors finale in Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai.

Allied Works uncovered Pietro Belluschi's grand lobby in the Oregonian building along with other brilliant touches by the old master/Photo by Brian Libby

Allied Works uncovered Pietro Belluschi’s grand lobby in the Oregonian building along with other brilliant touches by the old master/Photo by Brian Libby

Superlatives about the Oregonian rehab notwithstanding, some local client still needs to make the leap that client Ann Sacks did for the 2281 NW Glisan building back in 2001: hire Allied Works for a new, ground-up building. There’s no doubt renovations reveal a particular talent. “The joke I always use with him is that he’s great at nothing,” client John Jay told me back in 2007, when I wrote about Cloepfil’s expansion of his Pietro Belluschi-designed house for Metropolitan Home magazine. “He has a tremendous feel for negative space—the site lines and the feeling of spatial relationships.” Yet as much of the out-of-town work has shown, Allied makes striking new buildings.

What might the future hold for the firm in Portland? We might eventually have an art museum project of our own to offer. Nevermind that the Portland Art Museum missed an opportunity hiring Boston’s Ann Beha instead of Allied Works for its expansion into the former Masonic temple next door. In time it’s plausible to imagine a next-generation expansion onto the vacant lot just north of the Mark Building, as the temple is now called.

That said, we needn’t simply daydream about landmark cultural buildings for Allied to design. They should be designing office buildings, too, and apartments, and courthouses. When Multnomah County selected the very capable and admirably sustainability-conscious local firm SRG Partnership earlier this year for its new waterfront courthouse beside the Hawthorne Bridge, I immediately thought to myself, “This should have gone to Brad Cloepfil.” And I’ve had the same thought many times over with other projects around town. A replacement for the Moda Center? Give it to Allied instead of one of the usual-suspect arena designers from out of town. A new identity for Portland State University? Call Brad, not some other local firm with 20 university buildings to its name, none of them striking.

Model of the Clyfford Still museum in Denver, part of "Case Work"/Photo by Brian Libby

Model of the Clyfford Still museum in Denver, part of “Case Work”/Photo by Brian Libby

After all, Cloepfil’s generational predecessor as Greatest Portland Architect, Pietro Belluschi, designed not only the Portland Art Museum but also office buildings, houses, elementary schools and churches. The same is true for the national firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which took over Belluschi’s office in the 1950s when he left Portland to become dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architecture school. SOM proceeded to design a string of still-beloved downtown buildings, including the Standard Insurance Center and the US Bancorp building (“Big Pink”) in addition to a cultural facility: the masterful Memorial Coliseum. The opportunities are endless for Allied Works, because it’s the creativity of thought that distinguishes the firm, not the projects types in which it has seemed to specialize.

Part of the challenge may be the competition coming from Cloepfil’s own disciples. Many of the talented designers Allied Works originally brought to town or nurtured have gone on to form their own firms. Lever Architecture, perhaps the most acclaimed local firm of the past five years, has gained notice for a host of projects ranging from the modest-yet-magnificent Union Way shopping complex to the ArtHouse residence hall for PNCA. Lever also has some big office projects lined up for the Zidell Yards development in South Waterfront. Its founder, Thomas Robinson, worked for Cloepfil after a previous stint for the world’s top firm of the 2000s, Switzerland’s Herzog & DeMeuron. Hacker, the firm started by Cloepfil’s teacher, mentor and first local employer, Thomas Hacker, has been reborn in recent years with the addition of another former Cloepfil employee, Corey Martin. And arguably the city’s best houses of recent times have been designed by former Cloepfil employee Ben Waechter. A few weeks ago I visited an imaginative transformation of a heretofore-unremarkable concrete block, which housed a former awning company warehouse, into an arresting, light-filled headquarters for advertising agency Swift, designed—you guessed it—by another pair of architects with Allied on their résumés, Heidi Beebe and Doug Skidmore of Beebe Skidmore.

Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that Allied Works is ready to be put out to pasture while a new generation takes over. From Frank Lloyd Wright to Philip Johnson, architects have long done their best work in their later years, and Cloepfil is only 60. Instead, I’d wager that while Oregon is an indelible part of Brad Cloepfil’s way of seeing the world—particularly the sense of how buildings fit into landscape—ultimately it’s appropriate, and a feather in our collective cap, for this to be a firm practicing largely beyond the 503 area code.

We don’t need Allied Works to be like the big local firms that churn out one hospital or business school or condo after another, wowing clients with their experience more than their talents. But we do need for Cloepfil and his firm to maximize their opportunity to make a major mark on their home city. As projects like the Oregonian building rehab or exhibits like “Case Work” remind us, when you experience an Allied Works building you know it—because you come away transformed.

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