Interview with an Emerging Architect
Cloepfil: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, there were a lot of faculty there from Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, and some had worked with Louis Kahn. So there was a lot of discussion about the role of construction and structure and that legacy.
When I came out of undergraduate school in the early 1980s, one of the few people acting on that, and reinterpreting those thoughts, was Mario Botta. When I went over there [to Botta's office in Switzerland], he was still truly a regional architect, taking those principles that he had learned and reapplying them in the context of Ticino.
It was really powerful and beautiful work. It made me believe in the continuity of the dialogue. In contrast, the rest of the United States in the early 80s was pretending like there was a tremendous shift into postmodernism and its representational style, abandoning the continuum of the 20th century. In Europe they weren't. Japan wasn't either. People like Botta and Ando were evolving modernism into something else.
Libby: So you think of postmodernism as just a bump in the road?
Cloepfil: It was a diversional aberration, strictly driven by market forces as much as anything else. In architecture, that is, not in literature and thinking by any means. But the way it manifested in architecture was strictly commercialism.
Libby: What was it about architecture that first fascinated you?
Cloepfil: First of all, the idea that architecture is about construction, and structure, and about the expressive possibility of those, and that architecture needs to respond to its current cultural context. To initiate an act of architecture is to initiate a dialogue: what's around it? There's the institutional context as with the art museum in St. Louis and its nature as a noncollecting contemporary art museum. Then there's the site of St. Louis, which has a complex urban history. There are so many layers of information to respond to.
Libby: Your proposal for the FCA beat out some pretty famous clients. What do you think the selection panel responded to?
Cloepfil: I competed with a group of my architectural mentors: Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron, Koolhaas. Relative to some of the European architects in the mix, I think the panel saw in my work similar shared principles, shared ethics if you will, but a more particular ability to respond to American culture, an American context, which I think they were interested in.
Libby: How does the FCA respond to Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building next door?
Cloepfil: I get asked that a lot. Really, other than that it's a really beautiful building, for me conceptually it's no different from any other, in that you respond to its nature, its materiality, its scale. For us, for the FCA, it's really just a party wall building. It's very blank, and you're dealing with an open spatial palette, certainly in respect to its scale.
Libby: What is the biggest challenge you face as an architect?
Cloepfil: We've been fortunate to have very intelligent, committed clients, who understand the value of the architecture, so that the usual process of having to educate the client or advocate for the architecture against the client, never happens. So beyond that, the challenges more than anything, I think, are dealing with the contracting culture of the United States. In general there's a very narrow practice of construction here, relative to other parts of the world. Sometimes very simple things that you think are standard become innovations. Trying to control costs of those things that are outside the standards and practices is hard. We don't set out to innovate construction techniques. Yet many times we run into challenges getting things built our way.
Libby: A trademark of Allied Works projects seems that the details are highly resolved. How do you balance attention to small details with large composition and planning issues?
Cloepfil: Good architecture works on both small and large scales. The exciting thing about following through to the level of rigor that we do is that you wind up resolving things on a detail level that you couldn't resolve on a larger scale. Sometimes at the handrail level you can resolve a very large concept. It takes that complete manner of thinking and attention. It's about the care of construction.
Libby: When a small issue resolves a large concept, is that usually something you discover along the way?
Cloepfil: Absolutely. Wieden + Kennedy was the first big project I worked on completely on my own, and I learned so much along the way. It was really fun.
Libby: That seems like a scary proposition, though. In those situations you could look back and say that at the beginning you didn't have all the best answers.
Cloepfil: Yeah [laughing], so far that hasn't been a problem, but it could have been. In Europe they actually continue to draw through the construction process. They acknowledge that that's part of it, whereas in the United States they ask you to finish the process completely and build the building for two years. It's kind of backwards.
Libby: And in Europe they also give a lot more opportunity to young architecture firms like yours?