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

Feb 2, 2000 at 4:00 am
"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.

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.

"(The Forum's) a much more open matrix spatially and experientially and functionally."

Cloepfil has designed a series of subtle terraces for the Forum's interior. The building descends diagonally some 15 feet from entryway to courtyard. "We thought we'd lock it into the earth but lock it into both the city and the earth in some way so it was much more specific of an experiential location." Enter one room and there is a glimpse of the space beyond; move to that room and there is another view of where you've been. Huge beams span the space above, creating "volume below you and volume above you. As you move on that horizon line, things drop away and rise up."

Where Ando's Foundation is about concrete walls, Cloepfil's Forum is about indefinite boundaries. "There are some views into the gallery spaces from the street, with as much transparency as we can so there's literal transparency, and then there's this" -- Cloepfil points at the model to a structural overhang near the entrance of the building -- "as they say in architectural terms, "phenomenological transparency,' where you actually walk under this huge cantilever of a structure that captures the light from the galleries, so from the street you're actually engaging that volume with light coming through. The whole element of what's inside, what's outside, shifts."

After Cloepfil and his colleagues executed several models, all with the primary intention of bringing the building to the street -- or "engaging the urban fabric," in Cloepfil's architect-speak -- they found themselves still wrestling with the overall design.

Cloepfil went back to some of his preliminary drawings, working from a metaphor of closed and open cups. The Ando was closed, with the architect controlling the light and the perception of the space, and, consequently, the perception of the art. Cloepfil would contrast Ando's closed cup with an open one.

"All this really needs to be about," he determined, "is the earth and the sky, and we occupy this place in between. The architecture modifies that experience: sometimes it blocks the light out, sometimes it opens it up.

"I went back to that very fundamental experiential notion -- and I just drew it. I simplified the quest: Let's make a place where I feel the relationship to the earth so clearly, then I walk into these huge volumes where the boundary is totally transparent and yet very roomlike.

"Fundamentally, from an architectural point of view, we wanted to make a transparent field -- a field of rooms, which is contradictory. How do you make a field of closed rooms? But when you get in there, the perception of the proportions of the volume will make you feel like you are in a room. You'll feel a sense of that calm, to a certain extent; at the same time, the space will be pulling you away. You'll be captured by the space above."

Before this design becomes actual, however, there's still a ways to go. The Forum is a little past the halfway mark on a $10 million capital campaign. Cloepfil and his team are only a quarter of the way through the drawing process, but, he says confidently, "The ideas we're excited about are such clear, archetypal notions of space-making. It's coming together so well. We understand it can't be a luxurious building. It doesn't want to be a precious building, functionally. We're trying to be very clear and concise in the elements we are building."

When the dual projects are completed, the Foundation and the Forum will share a courtyard, a Richard Serra sculpture placed within it. Cloepfil's model suggests how the two buildings may complement each other. The Ando softens beside Cloepfil's Forum; Cloepfil's airy transparencies appear more firmly planted beside the Foundation's monumentality. Contrary to many urban landscapes, at least on this corner, St. Louis is relieved of the noise of dueling architects.