Architect Brad Cloepfil seeks to break with tradition in his design of the new Forum for Contemporary Art building

"This building will introduce a dialogue about a new kind of art space. There's no question in my mind that it will do that."

Brad Cloepfil, at first meeting, doesn't appear to be the kind of architect to make such a bold pronouncement. Cloepfil doesn't command an assuming presence. He's broad-shouldered but not of an aggressive stature. He has short reddish hair and pale skin that reddens to a brighter shade than the hair when his exuberance bursts forth, which is often during the weekend for the unveiling of his preliminary models and drawings for the new Forum for Contemporary Art building.

Cloepfil's excitement is compelling, even infectious. It's not a boyish, off-putting exuberance but that of a grown man realizing his ambitions. Cloepfil's having fun. After four months of study, his Portland, Ore., firm, Allied Works Architecture, has put together the current drawings and models (on view at the Forum through March 18) in the last three weeks. It's all very fresh, new and possible. "I'm incredibly excited," Cloepfil openly, quietly confesses.

A rendering of the interior of the new Forum for Contemporary Art. "Fundamentally," says architect Brad Cloepfil, "from an architectural point of view, we wanted to make a transparent field  --  a field of rooms...."
A rendering of the interior of the new Forum for Contemporary Art. "Fundamentally," says architect Brad Cloepfil, "from an architectural point of view, we wanted to make a transparent field -- a field of rooms...."

He is also hugely confident, which has been apparent since he took part in the interview process for the Forum job, competing with some of the most important names in international architecture, such as fellow American Will Bruder, Spain's Carlos Ferrater and Mexico's Enrique Norten. Cloepfil made it known to the Forum's selection committee that this was not just another contract for him. He did not mask his ambitions and saw the Forum building as a way to make a significant mark in world architecture.

The site itself invites such ambitions. Next door, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is under construction, designed by one of the preeminent architects of a generation, Tadao Ando -- his first public building outside his native Japan. Ando works exclusively with concrete, and with that material he shapes exquisite forms (according to his proponents) or austere, unappealing fortresses (according to his detractors).

In conversation, Cloepfil at first deflects the architectural predicament of being next to an Ando -- "Oh yeah, I forgot about that" -- then begins to define the challenges the concrete edifice presents:

"It's funny, isn't it? As far as a dialogue of contemporary architecture, it's a very charged site." Cloepfil has tried to diminish that charge by getting down to the basics of design: scale, size, "the possibilities of making volume" -- elements inherent to design, whether the building next door is made of 19th-century brick or modern concrete. "When we get down to the materiality of the (Forum) building, there's a pretty strong dialogue, what with the concrete being so precious. It's charged, but it isn't really. It's more charged from a critical position than it is from an architectural. I mean, it's just a building."

Cloepfil may say the Forum is just a building, but when he talks about buildings, especially in the context of St. Louis history, he reveals how serious buildings can be. Cloepfil finds in the city "very substantial, very symbolic architectural monuments -- from the Basilica to the public buildings downtown, the churches, the houses." In Cloepfil's view, the concerns of 19th- and early 20th-century St. Louis are reflected in "the symbolic act of building cultural monuments."

The Ando, to Cloepfil's thinking, is in line with that tradition. "The Foundation is another cultural monument. It's a more modern cultural monument. It's a beautiful cultural monument. It's from the same history of object-making."

Cloepfil, however, seeks to break from that tradition with the Forum building: "What we don't want the Forum to be is an object. We're trying very hard for it not to be.

"The dialogue, from an architectural point of view, is if it's not a closed, cloistered monument symbolically representing itself (the Foundation), how is (the Forum) engaging the community if it's not doing it symbolically? It wants to do it physically and experientially. It wants to be tangible."

Cloepfil's design situates the Forum in the streetscape at the corner of Spring and Washington. A bird's-eye view presents a simple sequence of rectangles, with the Spring Street, or east, wall making a long curve. Windows offer glimpses into the galleries, and visitors will walk beneath a cantilevered cornice, which creates an impression of being inside the building without having entered it. This dissolution of boundaries between outside and inside is primary to Cloepfil's design and to the philosophy underpinning that design.

"(The Forum building) engages the urban fabric so strongly that it conceptually takes a lot of inspiration from the street," Cloepfil explains. "How you leave the street and where the boundary of the street is -- that's a huge part of the conceptual foundation of the building, blurring that boundary, establishing it again and then immediately blurring it. You don't know if you're on the outside edge or within the volume; you turn the corner and suddenly the outside is the inside. That's a very strong, very perceivable spatial volume that you can see in some of the perspective sketches.

"Then again, in most cases -- and I haven't been to Bilbao (the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry) -- but even Bilbao, when you really get down to the rooms for the art, they're still premised on some architect's notion of how to make a room that presents the art. What I'm trying to do is make a very resonant void that the art can present itself in. I think that's fundamentally different. I have not been to a contemporary -- i.e., built in the last 50 years even -- art space that I can say has that spirit in it. I've been in some beautiful ones that make beautiful rooms, and this (the Foundation) makes beautiful rooms for art. It's exquisite. You walk in that gallery and it's beautiful. But it's really about the architecture making a very intentional, preconceived way of presenting art.

Next Page »