Allied Works Architecture—a firm with offices in Portland and New York—has earned a reputation for remarkably evocative, poetic buildings infused with inventive materials, textures, and forms. For example, the wood-and-concrete offices of Wieden+Kennedy, the ethereal yet rough-hewn Clyfford Still Museum, and the forthcoming Ohio Veterans Memorial, which seems to spiral upward from its site.
Founder Brad Cloepfil operates in the artist-as-builder capacity more so than the functional engineer focused on the bare requirements of four walls and a roof to compose a structure. His work coaxes out the potential of a site and what the core ethos of a building should embody through impromptu charcoal sketches and models made from all sorts of materials, like charred wood, mottled plaster, bent strips of walnut, and copper wire encased in resin blocks—a rarity in a day where so much design work happens on a screen.
"What I like and what I believe about those sketches and models is that they’re distillations of ideas," Cloepfil says. "They could become art installations, or they could become buildings. They’re sort of hybrid pieces in the world of visual ideas before they become buildings—tools to understand the possibility of architecture, but things in and of themselves."
Case Work, an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum on view until April 16, presents a handful of these pieces to the public for the first time. We spoke with Cloepfil about the important role model making plays in his practice and about the artistry inherent in his design process.
Co.Design: How do you juggle the roles of architect and artist in your work?
Brad Cloepfil: In my practice, they’re not distinct. I produce the "visual industry" that’s in the show in a search for ideas. It’s all just searching for what makes sense for a project. The only distinction is scale—these things get big. At the end of the process the buildings get really complex and they take six years to do. That’s the only distinction. For me, personally, the intent is the same and that’s one of the liberating things for me. Talking to artists I work with and am friends with, we sort of start the same way and it’s just how it ends up [that’s different]. With Doug Aitken it’s film; with me it’s buildings.
How you typically begin a project?
The first thing I do is go see the site. When clients send me a brief, they think it’s about their needs and it’s usually about their symptoms, which is a different thing. It’s very rarely about what they actually need—it’s problems we’re attempting to solve.
I always go see the site and try to discern what the energy, nature, and character of the place are—the possibilities of a place. Then I start drawing. I do charcoal and pastel sketches that try to investigate different possibilities at a really elemental level. That’s why I use charcoal: it’s a rudimentary medium. Then we start building smaller studies and start generating some of those conceptual models.
For the Clyfford Still Museum, the sketches I drew after visiting the site were essentially my thoughts about the building's force on the site. Then, we made a compressed charcoal model—which is in the show—that’s a direct result of those sketches. And that just starts a cycle of models and sketches.
They’re not in pursuit of the design of a building; they’re in pursuit of ideas and they’re meant to be inspirational. Like, here’s one way of thinking about the building—what does that provoke? What are the possibilities?
How do you translate what you’ve learned from the models into the buildings?
The first sketches and models for the Clyfford Still Museum involved looking at the light, the buildings around the site and the context. The idea was that the building should be pressed into the earth and I wanted to bring natural light down into the earth. A kind of qualitative and experiential approach guided the whole design of the building and all of the iterations.
What’s hard about architecture—and what distinguishes it, too—is you can begin from the same kind of elemental idea as an artist or a musician, but architecture is so inherently complex as a public act. You go from my black sketches to two or three architects building concept models to a team of 10 or 15 architects doing a drawing to 150 people constructing the building over three years. It’s a very challenging process. We use these models later in the process as reminders and checks. As this thing goes through the process of changing its scale and material, going through all sorts of cultural forces—like budget—we ask, is it still serving the key idea?
It takes four years minimum to do a significant building and sometimes you get lost on that journey, sometimes you go down the wrong path. [Looking at the models is] usually out of frustration—we’re just missing it and we’ve gotta get back to what we’re trying to do. Where did we go wrong, what are we missing? The models are reminders.
What’s your model-making studio like?
It depends on the project. We have a full wood shop, we’re getting a lathe, we need to get a kiln. We work in other people’s shops, too. We kind of go where the ideas go.
We did the secondary studies of the Ohio Veterans Memorial Museum in porcelain so we had to find kiln space in somebody’s studio. There’s a woman in the office who knows how to work with clay. The ambient talent of the architects in my office is amazing. We can kind of do anything. I think it has something to do with our beginnings in Oregon where there’s a kind of craft ethic or making ethic that underlies our practice. The type of people who are attracted to Allied Works are makers.
Do you think that having the opportunity to work in a tactile and tangible format helps to kind of unlock certain areas of creativity within the architects who work at the firm?
Absolutely. I was using the term "visual industry" before. It’s like a shared way of thinking and it sets those things free from individual points of view. With the objects in particular, you go through a cycle of making and you learn things.
It’s funny: even a block of wood that we split open and gild the interior cracks says something. That’s why it’s interesting. Making those pieces with a level of intent and yet abstraction—most of them don’t look like buildings—communicates things that representational drawings don’t. It's a kind of spirit and nature and quality and a kind of presence. It creates a culture of conceptual thinking in the office.
There’s a subtext to this whole thing. This is a counter proposal to the age of instant image making. We come to the images slowly; it’s a reveal. It's figuring out the qualities of the building before we make something that looks like a building. We have to understand what the building is about.
Where do tangible models fit into the age of more sophisticated digital tools and rendering techniques?
It’s the appropriate tool at the appropriate time. That’s all it is for me. Again, briefs are briefs; they don’t tell you what the building wants to be. It’s a search for that. Once we get into the elemental understandings of site and the material quality—ideas of mass and transparency, heavy and light, how the building opens itself to the city or site—then we start to use digital tools.
Sometimes we use digital tools and go back to paper. It’s really interesting. With some of the complex forms and geometries in our current buildings—like the National Music Centre of Canada and the Ohio Veterans Memorial—you have to do digital studies. But as facile and wonderful as digital tools are, we go back and make models. Sometimes it's quicker to just bend and staple and pin. Having physical things sit on the table is radically different than computer files locked in the machine.
Do you think that there’s any artistry lost though working solely in digital models or is the artistry becoming expressed in a different way?
It depends. I have yet to see anybody use digital media really conceptually in architecture. I’ve only seen digital media used to objectify a building and to present it as an image. We use the digital model when we’re trying to understand the complexities of the space and the structure, but they’re still really abstract drawings. We make beautiful renderings too, just like everybody else. Eventually you show the client the building.
I think the primary culture of architecture right now is a consumer culture and it’s based on buildings as objects, not ideas. I think the culture demands an image long before there’s an idea driving the building and so I think our cities are getting filled with built images that are somewhat vapid.
Case Work is the first time you're actually showing these items in public. Is it strange to exhibit your process and works in progress?
It took me about five or six years to understand how and why to exhibit the work. They weren’t intended as things in and of themselves, but part of a conversation. The idea of sticking them on white pedestals with vitrines over them never made any sense to me. Even though some of them are pretty evocative, that’s not what they’re intended to do.
After thinking about it and having a lot of curators encouraging us, the idea came forth that it’s a show of our tools. We designed and made conceptual toolboxes to present the work. They’re never shown as single items, but as collections of items. They're not trying to be precious objects; they’re trying to be part of a larger conversation.