Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon, has become the go-to man for museum design these days. He’s built an addition to the Seattle Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Musem St. Louis, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and is presently at work on the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. He’s in San Francisco briefly this week and he and I got a chance to sit down and chat. Here’s what he had to say:
I was just at the Frank Lloyd Wright show that is up right now at the Guggenhiem in New York. And it seems to me that architecture exhibits in museums are always a dicey prospect. So often you end up just looking at photos and sketches. You design a lot of museums, so tell me have you given much thought to how architecture should be presented interestingly in the museums you design?
Generally that’s an issue of curation, a choice about the way you show architecture. With architecture you tend to have scale representations whereas with art you have the artifact itself. When you’ve got architecture in a museum there are usually one or two or three scale shifts, so what you end up with is a representation, like a photograph of a painting.
The best architecture shows I’ve seen in museums are an investigation of the process of architecture, not the representation of a building or an object. There’s a show on right now that started in Basel called Museums of the 21st Century [currently at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville] and it’s essentially just objects and posters.
One of the great parts about the Frank Lloyd Wright show at the Guggenheim is that you’re in a Wright building as you see the show. But as soon as it travels you lose the insight and aura that the building sheds on the show. The curators get a real boost from the location. What kind of space do you want to give curators of art museums?
A range of spaces, I think. When the Guggenheim first opened there was a lot of opposition, and there has continued to be opposition until maybe the 90s. People said, “Oh, you can’t show art here,” or “Oh, you can’t install here.” And the truth is, it’s a narrow kind of space. You have to know how to use it.
I like the idea of giving curators a rang of scale and proportion: one room with 12 foot ceilings, another with 24 foot ceilings, big rooms, small rooms. In any space you have to learn the building, but in a spot like the Guggenheim that can take much longer.
That said sometimes the best spaces are those that weren’t designed to be museums, like look at the Philips Collection in Washington DC that’s in an old mansion. They use that building really well. You get these great paintings hung on wood-paneled hallways and staircases, or in some back bedroom. But they use that building well.
What are you listening to these days?
A Portland, Oregon, band called Blitzen Trapper. Don’t think I’m cool, though. My kids feed me all kinds of music that I would never hear otherwise. I also really like Eagles of Death Metal, but that’s a bit old.
I’m reading Pico Iyer’s travelogue with the Dali Lama The Open Road. I can’t really remember the last bit of fiction I read.
About an hour before we met I tweeted that I was coming here to talk with Brad Cloepfil and asked if anyone out there had a question for you, and I got a response. So on behalf of Mimi Zeiger: Are you happy with how the skin and floor plate worked out at the Museum of Art and Design in New York?
I’m really happy! Is that a trick question or something, because I’m really happy with both. We did something speculative with the skin and it really works. I’m not as thrilled with the exhibition design, but the floor is good.
The best exhibition design bridges the gap between the art and the building. It’s that mediating scale that takes us from the city, the building, and hands you this object, the art, so that you can see it.
The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, will sit right next to Daniel Liebskind’s Denver Art Museum, which is quite a dramatic building. What kind of a neighbor do you want to be to such a presence?
The Liebskind building is very extraverted; it’s very much about the object and its appearance on the landscape. If the Denver Art Museum is about extension, and even explosion, then the Clyfford Still Museum is the opposite. It’s about the earth and sky. The language and the spirit and the form are quite heavy, quite earthbound. The idea for the building is that you’re always going further and further in.
And we’ll see that in 2010?
That timeframe turned out to be a bit ambitious.
God, let’s hope so.
Portrait of Cloepfil by Ben Benschneider