Mending Wall

Architect Brad Cloepfil comes to town for a test of his Forum for Contemporary Art design

In the warmth of the offices of the Forum for Contemporary Art, architect Brad Cloepfil looks a little bored as a woman in those fashionable pinched-eye glasses and a black leather suitcoat is going on about lighting designs: Does this fixture taper or not? Cloepfil has flown from his Portland, Ore., offices to observe work on a test wall for the new Forum building he's designed. Down the street at the construction site, located next door to Tadao Ando's Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and near Richard Serra's sculpture "Joe," workers bundled in overalls and hooded jackets are trying to jerry-rig a steel scrim to a concrete wall, to see whether this facet of Cloepfil's design agrees with the material world. But plans for sandblasting the concrete, a crucial element of the building's design, have been delayed because of the wicked cold front blowing through. A little anxious about plans deferred, Cloepfil's more than willing to leave the discussion of tapered and untapered fixtures to talk about his building.

His bulky copper sweater covers a stocky physique. Cloepfil looks as if he could handle himself out on the construction site, but presumably he's just fine with the architect's setting of a warm room to work in on a cold day. Cloepfil last spoke with the RFT in January, when his plans for the new Forum building were first being presented to the public. Concept is nearing material form, the sketches made by pencil on paper enacting cranes and shovels and the people who run them. With groundbreaking scheduled for April, Cloepfil displays the enthusiasm he felt when the preliminary models were shown nearly a year ago. "It's so exciting," confides the youthful redhead. "I'm totally excited."

A year ago, he talked about the gallery spaces of the new Forum as open fields of spatial experience, the building acting as a conduit between earth and sky, between interior galleries and exterior urban landscape.

Today, though, there's the hard reality of walls. In the office, a square of concrete rests on a shelf -- it's a sample of what he hopes the Forum walls will look like. The square is cream-colored, almost white, with flecks of stone barely appearing on the surface. It has the elegance of limestone. "Close up, it looks quite stonelike," Cloepfil agrees. "I like the ambiguity of that. All it's doing is taking the concrete off the surface and exposing the sand and gravel that's in it. It makes a very warm color. We had that up (the sample) last time we were here, against the Ando building. The Ando is quite gray, and this is quite cream -- it's all local sand, river sand."

Cloepfil's design is deceptively simple, two ribbons of structure, one upper, one lower level. The 150-foot concrete ribbon -- a long, curved wall -- needs to contrast with the big concrete form of the Ando next door, and to do that means "rendering the concrete." Cloepfil wants the Forum wall to contrast the Ando by appearing "very abstract, an ambiguity of what's what. Is that steel? Is that concrete? It's about that world where you aren't sure what's making that enclosure.

"There's no illusion to it. It's not about illusion, but it has that tension. It's a veiled perception at the same time, too."

But to make that idea manifest means utilizing the craftsmanship of those guys in the overalls and hooded jackets. It also means knowing a thing or two about concrete. Cloepfil explains that, in sandblasting, "You use the same size of sand, or matrix, that you blast to remove its equal. So if you use really fine sand, it removes the fine sand. If you use medium rock, it removes medium rock. So it's this kind of wonderful inverse. So we're experimenting with different sands to see just how far down you go, and what do you leave, how big a rock do you leave."

This makes for a very painterly process, for which the word "sandblast" doesn't seem appropriate. For Cloepfil, now responsible for transforming an elegant computer model into elegant stone, it is also "a little bit terrifying, because there is a hand in it now. It's not pure modernist production. It has a hand to it, and I've never actually done this before. And over these huge surfaces -- we are rendering the concrete; there's no way around it. But I don't want you to be able to see the render. I just want you to be able to not see -- I want the absence, not the presence."

He shakes his head. "It's tricky, tricky, tricky, because once you get into handwork, if someone pauses for two seconds ..."

Cloepfil is pleased with the invitation to talk about changes that have been made from the original design, rather than fixing on the conundrum of sandblasting. "There's only the lower wall, the upper wall and the ceiling," Cloepfil explains, getting down to the basics. "There's only three elements of spatial enclosure. The ceilings initially were wood beams, and now we've abstracted them, partly because of cost. When we investigated, however, the solution was so much better. The ceilings are now just plaster planes hovering and shifting."

Cloepfil has selected a system of "open-webbed steel joists," the structure used in almost any shopping mall, "the simplest, cheapest spanning device you can do.

"But the clarity of those things," Cloepfil effuses. "In our drawings, they're articulated as plaster slabs." Natural light is let in where the slabs separate. "If you want to make that three galleries, you can, if you follow the natural breaks. But even without it, it gives you a different scale of volume, so as a curator you're working with these differentiations that are so subtle, and the quality of the light changes.

"This thing above you is floating, so you can never really tell where the definition of the ceiling is. So as you move through, there's the sense of infinite tension, because of the economy of the gesture, the economy of the building, the overall quiet."

One of the charming facets of Cloepfil's personality is his undisguised ambition. Partly what attracted the Forum's selection committee to Cloepfil was his singular desire to make an architectural mark with this building. That ambition has not been dissuaded in a year spent detailing and refining the original concept. He refers to the plans for Cincinnati's new Contemporary Art Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, a dizzying display of glass, precarious rectilinear forms and zigzagging ramps. "I think [the Forum building] is going to cause tremendous reverberations. Again, I love it as a counterpoint to something like Hadid's -- the reverberations of this language of architecture, its clarity, its simplicity, and yet the richness of experience without the sort of excess gesture you see in so many buildings today. It's so much about the architect, and about the architecture as the subject. I don't care what they say, whereas this architecture will have tremendous presence -- it won't be that kind of in-your-face gesture, filled with ramps and all the other sorts of miracle devices.

"Ninety percent of the architecture produced is a product," Cloepfil contends, "and it's a product for a market. However the client defines it, or however the architect defines it for that client, they provide that product. Both (the Forum) and the Ando are providing experiences. It's really about spatial experience."

Which is what makes the labors of those guys bundled against the cold more significant than the pouring of concrete for another parking garage, or another new baseball stadium designed to look like another old baseball stadium. Even if it's not much comfort against the cold to be thought of as providing "spatial experience," as did those who built the pyramids, Chartres, the Brooklyn Bridge ....

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