WHEN SEATTLE ART Museum officials chose Portland architect Brad Cloepfil to design...

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WHEN SEATTLE ART Museum officials chose Portland architect Brad Cloepfil to design the expansion of its downtown building, the response among museum watchers was basically, “Brad who?”

Cloepfil’s firm, Allied Works Architecture, had completed only a few sizable projects since its establishment in 1994, and offered little in the way of tangible assurance that it could pull off such a complicated commission. It seemed like Cloepfil would have to be some kind of magician to integrate the decorative but rather dysfunctional, five-story Robert Venturi-designed museum with a jutting new 42-story Washington Mutual tower next door let alone make SAM’s expanded galleries friendly to both art and viewers, create welcoming public spaces and, oh, by the way, devise a distinctive new identity for the city’s most visible museum.

I started ticking off the architects with a hand in the project and thought of that old adage about too many cooks.

That was three years ago. Since then, Cloepfil’s career has skyrocketed on a dizzying ride that has startled even those who were betting on him. “We knew he was being considered for other projects, but we didn’t think he would be moving as fast as he has been,” says Seattle businessman Charlie Wright, a SAM trustee who served on the committee that selected Allied Works.

In the space of a few years, Cloepfil’s firm has seen the completion of its design for the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis and been commissioned to build the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Allied Works is building a residential complex that includes a guest house and art barn on 350 acres in upstate New York, and is renovating a 10,000-square-foot city loft that had belonged to Robert DeNiro. Cloepfil also let slip that Allied Works, in partnership with Seattle landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, was awarded the much-coveted East River Walk park commission, an on-hold proposal for a half-mile park in New York City.

But the project that has kept Cloepfil’s name in the limelight is his design for the Museum of Arts & Design — the loudly disputed remodel of a 1964 Edward Durell Stone building in New York. The building had been rejected for historic-landmark status and was sitting empty when the city of New York arranged to sell it to the museum. But a vocal group of preservationists, including writer Tom Wolfe and artist Chuck Close, protested changes to the building’s ornate façade. The debate was not about Cloepfil’s design per se, but about whether the façade should be left intact. Remodel proponents argued that the building had proven unworkable from the start.

In October, the museum prevailed, and work is now moving forward on the renovation. But the prolonged media hoopla had created a buzz around Cloepfil, too. The Oregon-grown architect had defended his proposal against the barrage of criticism and provided smart, succinct quotes to New York reporters. Deborah Solomon interviewed Cloepfil for The New York Times Magazine. ArtNews profiled him as one of last year’s 25 “Movers, Shakers and Makers.”

So, how did a little-known West Coast architect garner such high-profile commissions in the first place? What sets him apart from the pack of emerging talents — especially in the eyes of museum trustees?

Seeing him in action at his Portland office, it is obvious he has the stuff to convince, cajole and inspire confidence in clients. Tall and crisply tailored, a tangle of graying reddish curls framing his face, he’s got a straightforward and disarmingly casual manner. Cloepfil peppers his conversation with the pause-word “right?” — continually affirming you’re with him, coaxing you along. He’s proud that the bookshelves in his office hold more books on art than architecture, but claims to have worn out the binding of his reference on the great 20th-century modernist Louis Kahn. To keep up with his hectic schedule, Cloepfil refuels regularly on double soy lattes. It’s not easy to get a piece of his time, but once you do, he pays attention. He’s the kind of guy it would be fun to sit down with and have a real conversation, about art, buildings, the state of the world.

Yet if Cloepfil’s got plenty of charm, there’s also an edge to his personality, and hints of a temper. On a walk through the SAM construction site, he bristled when a staffer he hadn’t been told would be there prepared to come along. It’s a matter of respect, he says. And when asked about how he handled all the conflict over the New York museum, he said it didn’t bother him: “I’ve definitely got an aggressive side to my nature.”

As for talent: Cloepfil has a reputation for being able to take a claustrophobic box of a building and slice open the space to reveal a web of exposed structure and radiant natural light. He’s known for creating exteriors that are subtle but strong enough to hold their own next to high-profile buildings. Curators admire his passion for art and eagerness to design art-friendly gallery spaces.

Despite all that, a sense of tentativeness clings to the acclaim. It’s easy to see a touch of Icarus in the precipitous way Cloepfil’s career took off. Could he be another architect du jour, whose popularity rises in a flash and then quietly sinks away?

IN THE BEGINNING, architecture was less a calling than a solution for Cloepfil. “I had a rebellious streak, but a kind of middle-class rebellious streak,” he says, sitting in his airy studio in Portland’s burgeoning Pearl District. “I didn’t really have the confidence to be an artist. I mean, my whole youth was spent in creative things, but I couldn’t imagine my parents sending me to college to study art. They were very supportive, but I didn’t have the guts to do that. So, architecture was something creative where you could maybe actually make a living. . . . and there was no way in hell I was going to go into business or any kind of straight profession.”

At 49, Cloepfil is still young in the world of high-stakes architecture. He grew up in the Portland suburb of Tigard, the second son of working parents. “I bought my first architectural scale when I was 12. I bought the triangles and all that stuff,” Cloepfil says. “I just thought they were interesting. I’ve always been a visual guy; I’ve drawn my whole life.”

Following his brother, Brian (now a project manager at the architectural firm Callison, in California), Cloepfil applied to architecture school at the University of Oregon. He was turned down. A year later, he reapplied, with more drawings, “little designs” and “stuff I’d built” in his portfolio. This time, he was accepted.

At first, he says, “I just liked making things. I don’t think I really understood how buildings look until my junior year in college.” That’s when he took a quarter off and traveled in Europe. “It’s the first time I saw space. Growing up in the West, there wasn’t really an established culture of architecture; it was too new . . . Whereas you walk into your first Gothic cathedral, it kind of changes your view of the world. You begin to understand what architecture can be.”

That was his epiphany. “I was moved, profoundly, emotionally moved by spaces for the first time. I had been before, by the landscape in the Northwest. When you drive down the north slope of Mount Hood into the desert, you are moved: That sense of space inspiring wonder and awe. Seeing buildings that could do that was profound just being in beautifully made space.”

After graduating in 1980, Cloepfil did brief stints at several firms, including a year with Mario Botta, in Switzerland. He went on to Columbia University and in 1985 finished a master’s degree in advanced architectural design. The same year he married Carey Critchlow, now a Portland attorney, and for a while, the couple stayed in New York. Cloepfil worked at the Mitchell Giurgola firm, and filled in as an adjunct professor. But the decision was looming: Should he try to make a name for himself in the pressure cooker of New York, or return to Oregon and start out in a more relaxed, less expensive environment? In Portland, they’d have a support system of family and friends. “It was easier to be here and not have any work,” Cloepfil decided.

Back in Oregon, he worked for a Portland firm and taught at the University of Oregon and the Oregon School of Architecture and Design. In 1994, he took the leap and started Allied Works. To show what the firm was about, he generated a project called “Sitings,” and was allowed to build a structure on the grounds of the Maryhill Museum of Art near Goldendale, Wash.

As an introduction to Cloepfil’s architectural thinking, the Maryhill overlook project is an interesting artifact. The 150-foot structure is an essay on how to modulate space and choreograph light in a complex of lines, planes and apertures sprung from a single gesture. That is how Cloepfil works. His initial concept drawings are simple studies of formal integrity, the way volumes of space fit together and interact. The Maryhill overlook is basically an oversized model, not of a finished design but of its conceptual core. You can recognize the same impulse in the zigzagging line that forms the basis for a guesthouse Cloepfil designed for a client in Duchess County, N.Y. Whether that linear skeleton will flesh out into a comfortable house remains to be seen.

For Cloepfil as a young architect, the opportunity to build the Maryhill overlook was a milestone. But as a sculptural object in the landscape, the piece doesn’t work. The thrust of its form opposes the natural movement of the land: It obstructs rather than enhances the drama of a viewpoint over the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. Other issues have developed. The crisp geometry of its lines has begun in places to sag. And somebody has added fussy landscaping and wooden benches. Against its immediate surroundings, the piece looks like a bulky modernist sculpture plunked in Grandma’s garden. “It’s weathering badly,” Cloepfil admits. “They need to tear it down.”

If you are seeking the roots of Cloepfil’s architecture, Maryhill is only marginally useful. It’s a conceptual piece that lacks a clear function, a first step between paper design and the real world.

LOOK BEYOND Maryhill to a little Portland bar if you want to see the place that actually triggered his career. As Cloepfil recounts it, advertising executive Dan Wieden liked to hang out at the Saucebox, one of Cloepfil’s early, shoestring-budget projects. When Wieden was shopping for an architect to design the headquarters for his company, Wieden+Kennedy, he asked who had designed the bar and got in touch with Cloepfil. The two hit it off and went to look at a windowless cold-storage building that fills a block in the Pearl District.

“We walked in, and Dan said there’s no way in hell we are going to move into this building,” Cloepfil recalls.

“And I said, well, just let me show you: I think it has possibilities.”

The central issue was how to bring natural light into the cavernous building. So Cloepfil called for cutting an 80-by-100-foot hole in the middle. “All the timbers we took out we recycled. We brought in natural light and reinforced for earthquakes. That’s pretty much it: Light, collective spaces and structure.”

Sounds simple. But when you walk in, what dazzles is not only the abundance of light filtering in from mysterious sources but the Escheresque complexity of the exposed structure, each level of the building open to the next.

“It’s brilliant,” says Seattle architect David Leavengood. “You see the structure three-dimensionally. If you can think of space as a solid form, it moves and twists and turns. It does that by implication. The viewer sees where he is. There are a lot of architects who try to get this plasticity to space. They don’t understand space, they understand the materials that shape space, so they are focused on the materials, not the space.”

Leavengood and Cloepfil attribute the source of such spatial vitality to an 18th-century architectural thinker whose understanding of space some believe set the groundwork for modernism. Looking out over the hypnotic visual reverberations of the Wieden+Kennedy building, Cloepfil said just one word: “Piranesi.”

Wieden was so impressed with Cloepfil’s transformation of the building that he hired Allied Works to build him a house and to renovate the company offices in New York and London. He also commissioned a mountain lodge for a nonprofit he helps run in Oregon. For Cloepfil’s career, though, what counted most was the Wieden+Kennedy building, a showpiece and a testament to what he could do and what he believes. With it, Allied Works was poised for bigger things.

IT WAS A SUGGESTION from Terry Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that put Cloepfil’s name in the running when SAM’s expansion committee began looking for an architect. Cloepfil “has a fine sense of composition and knows how to put a building together,” Riley says, “not just in a functional way but the construction.”

For Riley, Wieden+Kennedy was an indicator of what Cloepfil could pull out of his hat, given a chance. “He really put his heart into it. I know there is always a push to get somebody from London or Tokyo, but I thought Seattle should look at somebody relatively in their backyard.”

Cloepfil took it from there. When the committee visited his Portland studio, he spoke with conviction about his work and took them to see Wieden+Kennedy. They were impressed, says SAM director Mimi Gates. “It was his sensitivity to materials, his use of natural light, the way he opened up that warehouse.” She also warmed to his concern for functionality.

Cloepfil wowed the curatorial staff, too. “The staff had really vocal pros and cons about all the architects, and Brad was the one we were most enthusiastic about,” says chief curator Chiyo Ishikawa. “He was the one who said, you are going to have a restaurant and gift store and all those things, but that’s not why people are going to come . . . Art will be an immediate part of the experience, which is different from the Venturi building.” Ishikawa is pleased to say that now, when she walks into the museum expansion, it is exactly what the architect promised.

When Cloepfil gave a walking tour through the four floors that SAM will initially occupy in the 16-story building, the spaces were still raw, piled with building materials. But the openness, the locating views of movement between floors, between galleries, of the city outside, all strike similarities with Yoshio Taniguchi’s design for the new Museum of Modern Art in New York. Cloepfil acknowledges it: “We detailed before MoMA was done, and a lot of things are similar in the language of the two.” He has a few quibbles about MoMA, but called Taniguchi’s design a “gorgeous” solution to a brutally difficult commission. Cloepfil also reveres Kahn’s design for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The newly opened DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, by the Swiss architectural team Herzog & Meuron, he says, is the most beautiful museum built in this country since the Kimbell. What he loves most about those buildings is the way they make him feel. “When I go to a museum, I want that sense of wonder. Not just about the art but about the space.”

Cloepfil won his own four museum commissions in the space of three years. The 1990s building boom made museum design the pinnacle of architectural stardom in a decade that saw the wild success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. For a while, the art inside a museum was playing second fiddle to its enclosure. But times are changing.

We’re experiencing a “post-Bilbao moment,” says MoMA curator Riley. “There’s a return to basic principles. When I see Brad’s work, it’s a kind of contemporary restatement of those principles.” That means it moves beyond spare, beautifully detailed functionality to a fresh understanding of how light and lightness affect our culture.

He maintains that Cloepfil has got the ambition, charm, talent and organizational skills to be a major player. Nevertheless, it’s unusual for an architect to get so many important commissions in such short order. It is more likely to happen in the U.S. than in Europe, Riley says, because here the juries aren’t professional and tend to choose on the basis of who’s won in the past. “You might say Brad is benefiting from that.”

Whether Cloepfil can maintain the prestige is an open question. Three of his museum commissions are not yet complete.

One thing is certain: His popularity is still on the rise. The next trendy thing in architecture, according New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger, is custom high-rise condominiums. Cloepfil revealed that Allied Works will soon be announcing the commission for a 50-story residential tower in lower Manhattan, the firm’s biggest job to date.

Since SAM hired Cloepfil in 2002, Allied Works has grown from 12 to nearly 40 employees, now split between the Portland office and one in New York. Cloepfil jets weekly between the two — a feat that’s put a strain on his marriage. One of his favorite pastimes remains keeping up with his three daughters: Georgia, 13, and Adriane, 16, both play soccer. Hannah, 19, studies dance at Sarah Lawrence.

Cloepfil’s growing celebrity has been trying for clients, too, who hired a young, readily available architect only to find him suddenly elusive and very much in demand. “The challenge of hiring a smaller firm is it’s exciting to work with the principal. On the other hand, he wasn’t really staffed up,” says Holly Hochner, director of the Museum of Arts & Design. Still, she says, Cloepfil has been a wonderful spokesman for the museum — when he’s around.

If the pace was exhilarating at first, it’s beginning to catch up with Cloepfil. “I would never think I’d continue this treadmill the next 10 years: It has to evolve. I need to delegate more, learn how to be more focused,” he said in a quick phone conversation from his Manhattan office. “To maintain sanity/integrity, you have to choose your projects very carefully. You always have to evolve your relationship with things. I’m definitely in the process of evolution.”

Sheila Farr is The Seattle Times art critic. She can be reached at sfarr@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.