Architectural models can be quite beautiful, and they are often exhibited in museums, but they tend to be little more than miniature versions of proposed buildings. Brad Cloepfil, AIA, founder of the Portland, Ore.–based firm Allied Works Architecture, creates models that are something else entirely. Made of wood, glass, resin, porcelain, copper, brass, and even pencils, they’re more like abstract sculptures—and they’re rarely seen by clients.
Dean Sobel, director of the Cloepfil-designed Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, argues that the architect’s drawings and models—while never intended to be displayed as artwork—share similarities with works by post-minimalists like Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, and Jackie Winsor. “Cloepfil,” Sobel says, “has worked at the intersection of architecture, sculpture, and drawing since the beginning of his career.”
The architect has long been reluctant to exhibit his models, but Sobel has finally persuaded him. “Case Work: Studies in Form, Space, and Construction by Brad Cloepfil/Allied Works Architecture,” curated by Sobel, runs at the Denver Art Museum through April 17, and will also be displayed at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon from June 4 through Sept. 4.
ARCHITECT sat down with Cloepfil and Sobel at the Denver Art Museum to discuss the ideas behind the exhibition.
How did the show come together?
Dean Sobel: It started from just seeing these things at the Allied Works offices in Portland and New York. And I was always really interested in them, particularly because they were never shown to me in a formal way. It was more that I’d have to reach out and ask Brad, “What’s this? What project is this for?” They weren’t on display. They were sitting on conference tables and desks, like stacks of paper. I think the timber model for the Clyfford Still Museum was just lying humbly by the front door.
I thought they should be brought together in an exhibition. And ultimately it was really Brad’s ideas about how one would do that visually. I think I probably would have resorted to something more traditional, like pedestals and vitrine tops, and it would have been a very different show. But that’s what collaboration is. You end up doing things that you would not have even considered.
Brad, had you ever considered doing an exhibition of your drawings and models?
Brad Cloepfil: No, not seriously. Years ago, I did a small exhibition in Portland of my charcoal sketches. Dean was probably the first one to see the depth and breadth of the objects. About five years ago, we thought, “We should probably do a show.” But we never got around to it. And then the works started accumulating. I began to see how they might be interesting to talk about, because they’re all about how we work.
Sobel: And you knew what you didn’t want to do. I think we had a very brief conversation about more traditional architecture shows: the presentation models, the computer drawings. There was a very early decision that you didn’t want that.
Cloepfil: With most architectural shows, you’re objectifying architecture. You’re showing images of buildings, and architecture models that are like toys, but they’re representational. I didn’t want anything to be representational. In fact, I didn’t want to put any images of the buildings in the show. I wanted it to be about ideas. I wanted the objects to communicate to us—that there’s an idea in them, and that’s what it’s about. But then it did seem a little mean-spirited not to show the final product, so we included some postcard-size images of the buildings.
How do the models—which are really more like sculptures—inform the final design of your buildings?
Cloepfil: They’re part of the intellectual and experiential investigation we do. The buildings come from that industry. Mostly, they inspire us. Take a sketch, give it form, learn from that form, go back, do more sketches, do some computer drawings. Work your way through it. Every time someone says they’re about “process,” I cringe a little bit. They’re really about ideas. The models aren’t objects that show steps between here and there. They’re just tools for us. As soon as we make them, we sort of reject them and go on to the next one.
Do clients see them?
Cloepfil: Three or four of them have—that’s all. I’ve gained more confidence in talking about them. But in this era of buildings as objects, the instant commodification of architecture, you might show these to clients, and they might say, “OK, but when are you going to show us what the building will look like?”
Sobel: When we were working with Brad on the Clyfford Still Museum, I usually saw them in PowerPoint presentations. He never excitedly took me over to see them. It was always the other way around. I would ask, “Brad, what’s that?”
Cloepfil: The notion that I could show clients an idea rather than an image—it took me a lot of time to have the confidence to assert that. And it’s a rare client who will understand that, and see the potential of it, and trust the process to make a building out of that. It takes a client who wants to be a partner in the investigation, as opposed to people who just want to collect architecture. We do get some of those clients, but mostly we get clients who want to create something, who want to find something rather than just buy the architecture.
Brad, what’s the story behind the Clyfford Still Museum wood model, which is in the exhibition?
Cloepfil: That came sort of midstream. We were trying to find the nature of the building. I think we had settled on where the building would be bounded, and I was upset by that at that stage, because I really wanted it to blur into the landscape. So I did a charcoal sketch of a section where the trees and the building were the same height, then gave it to the folks in the studio, and I said, “Can’t we rout this on a piece of wood?” They went downstairs and came back about a day or two later with the model. And then we all stood around and said, “This is what we’re serving.” And everyone could see it.
Some people may be surprised by the scale of the objects. Some of them are quite small.
Cloepfil: I think what always blows my mind about architecture is the transition in scale. No other art does that. You can start with a charcoal drawing, then you make objects that you share in the studio with 10 people, then you make working drawings that you share with 100 people, then 250 people build the building, and then it’s given to a city. It’s crazy! Your idea has to traverse those different scale evolutions. And sometimes they don’t make it. You get into the middle, and it’s not holding the building together, so you have to stop and rethink, "Where did we go wrong?"
Brad, why did you decide to display the objects in beautiful wood cases?
Cloepfil: The models were never conceived of as objects to be displayed. They’re the tools of our visual industry. When you’re tasked with doing a show, you consider the objects in an entirely new way. Now, they’re suddenly public objects, so how do we present them? The idea of putting them on pedestals—I couldn’t do it. It was hard enough for me to get to this phase of showing these things. They’re for us, and occasionally for clients. So, I wanted to contextualize the objects by putting them in wood toolboxes and cases, and framing them with metal “thresholds” that you step through. They hold and present the toolboxes, but they also allow you to get lost as you wander through the exhibition. There’s a sense of discovery.
Putting the models in a museum setting—that made me extremely nervous. Buildings are intended to be made public. When a building is completed, it’s no longer mine. But the models are different.