The buildings of Brad Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works Architecture, provide a refreshing counterpoint to today’s world of flashy “Look at me!” designs. They’re not bright, shiny objects intended to turn heads. Allied Works’ structures call to be experienced, walked through, felt. They’re compelling, lightfilled spaces worthy of pilgrimage. Often, as is the case with the airy Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, they appear as if in motion. Most of Cloepfil’s commissions have involved the display of art—and with good reason: Through subtly powerful composition, the architecture activates and enhances the works within. Founded in 1994 and based in Portland and New York, Allied Works has completed more than two dozen projects, including the headquarters of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the redesign of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), and several private residences for art collectors. (The firm also has six projects currently in design or under construction.) On the occasion of Allied Works’ 20th anniversary, Surface and Cloepfil discussed his distinctive vision and why it’s essential to find the right client.
What does it mean for you to hit this 20-year milestone?
[Laughs] What is it to have survived? Well, you survive with scars, I suppose. I generally haven’t acknowledged the 20 years, and I guess it’s amazing, considering the firm’s humble roots in Oregon. It’s only been the last 10, 12 years that Allied Works as we know it has emerged from a firm doing regional projects to getting national work and having more of the opportunities we have now.
You mentioned scars. What are some of the most notable ones?
Oh, I did offer you that, didn’t I? [Laughs] I don’t think I can get specific about the scars. It’s an interesting profession that way. It’s one of those professions that, because of the civic nature of it—and especially the kind of work we get, cultural work—you’re asked to do something exceptional. But it’s an exceptional client who will actually let you do that. So it’s the question of who will actually let you do your job.
Perhaps one of your scars came from the reception to your redesign of the Museum of Arts and Design, which finished construction in 2008. The project drew protests from preservationists and critics, including a scathing New York Times op-ed by Tom Wolfe. Now that it’s been five years, you’ve seen people use the space and interact with the exhibits. How do you feel about the structure today?
I know people are thrilled with it. What’s funny about architecture is that when it’s assessed in the media—whatever the context, positive or negative, especially in the current culture—it’s assessed as an image. With our buildings in particular—and especially that one, which is a grand redo, not a new building—it’s really the experience that matters. Obviously, the building wants to be beautiful and striking and extraordinary as an image, but I think people stop judging it that way when they go and experience it. And in the case of MAD, I think that the curation at the museum has risen to a new level. The curation and how the building’s played out—it’s engaging. I think that’s what now occupies people’s consciousness more than anything else.
Some critics argued that it either should have been a teardown job or that Edward Durrell Stone’s original building should have been kept entirely intact.
First of all, I think that argument is complete artifice. It’s absolute nonsense. There are too many significant restorations and transformations of architecture all over the world. I can’t even grant that conversation. But we were told by the city that we had to keep the building when they sold it to MAD—this had nothing to do with me. As dictated by the city in the agreement, we had to keep it and reclad it. The Bloomberg administration wanted it to be a new image on the new Columbus Circle. They had set the base of the Time Warner Center at the same height as MAD, so we couldn’t alter it.
The MAD project finished around the same time as your firm’s Seattle Art Museum extension, which was much less controversial but was in many ways the same sort of project. Why do you think MAD received all the vitriol?
Well, it’s Columbus Circle. One could say that the Upper West Side had an onslaught of development over the previous 15 years, so I think there were some bruised feelings in general. It was the cultural context of the time.
You’ve done many buildings in the arts arena, and during previous interviews, you’ve mentioned having an interest in certain artists. In what ways do you use art in your practice?
The clarity of the discourse among artists is inspiring. It’s a more direct way of having a conversation than architecture is, so a lot of times it’s just more legible or engaging. Ideas become the fuel for the commissions themselves. We’re lucky enough to have a few art commissions and residences for art patrons, and most of the time, they ask you to do something very specific and very exceptional.
There are certain institutions that collect architecture, and there are certain institutions that commission architecture. When we’re hired, we’re being commissioned to do something very, very unique. Some cities want to collect famous architecture from famous architects, so that they participate in a conversation about global style, and some cities want something very much about themselves. Not that many firms offer clients what we offer, which is something they haven’t seen before.
The Wieden+Kennedy headquarters was a case of a client—Dan Wieden—coming to you, at that time a young architect with a three-person firm, and saying, “Hey, this is what I want,” in a way that was pretty unorthodox at the time. He wanted to create something totally new.
That was absolute patronage. It was Dan Wieden and I doing a $30 million project for his agency. To be able to work that intimately with a client is pretty spectacular. To have that kind of a conversation with people who are so good at what they do and to watch their minds transition to things that are spatial and formal and physical is really engaging. He was a really good architecture critic. The best clients are really good architecture critics. The Dutchess County house clients, being big art collectors and never having made architecture before, were really good architecture critics and partners.
It’s interesting that you refer to a good client as an architecture critic. Could you elaborate on that?
They’re critics of ideas. We’re so process-driven, as you see with our sketches and concept models and everything else. We talk about the ideas, and once clients get into that conversation, they can reflect back on it and help you see things. With the Dutchess County house, we went through a couple of schemes, and one of the schemes we were showing them was a very large, cantilevered structure over the meadows. The client said, “It looks like a library.” It stopped me in my tracks. I knew that the scale was completely wrong and that she was absolutely right. After that, we just redirected the whole conversation. If they know what you’re after and they have good eyes, it’s actually pretty amazing. Dan Wieden did that, too, with the Wieden+Kennedy project. He just said something to me, and I said, “You’re right!”
When you got the Wieden+Kennedy commission, eyes were on you. Were you ready for a $30 million project?
We knew we could invent a new workspace. That’s all I thought about, and if we could do it with clarity, strength, and power, then it would stand on its own. People still copy that workspace today. We’ve been shown a couple of projects since that were pretty referential.
I was listening to Ann Hamilton once, and she was speaking about the idea of being offered a project as an artist and what a gift it is to be offered an opportunity like that. If Ann feels that way, I certainly do. When you get a chance to do something exceptional, I don’t feel like it’s my right as an architect; I feel like it’s a real gift. When Wieden asked me to invent something for his agency or when the Clyfford Still Museum asked us to invent space for those amazing paintings—what opportunities! You can do nothing but be grateful.
It’s not about anything in the larger context of architecture as much as it is about that moment with that project in that place. I treat these things very intimately. It’s not about building a body of work. I had never done a wood-frame project like I did for the Sokol Blosser Winery. It just seemed right for that project. What it’s really like—I’m getting too philosophical—is: The client comes with a question that has some kind of clarity and intelligence behind it, and that’s what inspires the architecture.
So you want clients who ask smart questions?
Exactly! I tell clients, “We need a question that we can answer. If you want a spectacular image of a building, we’re not the right architect. There are other architects who’ll give you that.” Whether we’re reading the briefs or having the conversations, we’re trying to listen to see if they’re even asking what we can offer.