Brad Cloepfil's Allied Works has spawned a generation of promising Portland architects.

BRIAN LIBBY - Portland Architecture critic Brian Libby

The Portland Art Museum’s new exhibit tracing the career of local architect Brad Cloepfil and his award-winning firm, Allied Works, is not your average museum exhibit of architecture. It’s a lot more than models sitting on pedestals and a few pretty pictures on the wall. Instead, filled with study models and conceptual drawings affixed to a custom-fabricated array of wood boxes, it recalls the 17th Century notion of museum as Cabinet of Curiosities. The exhibit, called “Case Work: Studies in Form, Space & Construction by Brad Cloepfil/Allied Works Architecture,” is also a window into the firm’s design process, where the right building often requires countless iterations.

Over the past 15 years, Cloepfil has become the most acclaimed Portland architect of his generation, with a host of prestigious commissions across the country and a particular flair for major art museums, including the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, an expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, and what may be Allied Works’ crowning glory, the magnificent Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Showing the influence of legendary 20th century modernist architects like Louis Kahn (Cloepfil studied under one of Kahn’s disciples, Thomas Hacker, at the University of Oregon), the firm creates a visual poetry of wood, concrete and most of all glass, able to create veritable secular cathedrals for clients like ad agency Wieden & Kennedy and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Cloepfil is equally adept at creating jewel-like houses, transcending scale with a restrained but confident touch.

Minimalism with maximum influence

For all the wonder of those projects, or other local examples like the Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room and the exquisitely minimalist 2281 Glisan building, what may be one of Cloepfil’s greatest contributions to Oregon architecture may be the array of excellent architecture firms that have been started in the past few years by former Allied Works employees.

Perhaps the city’s most imaginative creator of modern houses, Ben Waechter, worked under Cloepfil before going on to win a string of design awards. So too did architect Thomas Robinson, whose firm, Lever Architecture, is gaining international press and notoriety for innovating with a new generation of timber-framed skyscrapers. Doug Skidmore and Heidi Beebe, both of whom worked at Allied before starting their eponymous firm, Beebe Skidmore, which recently saw completion of a new headquarters for advertising agency Swift that successfully fuses a gritty existing Slabtown warehouse with light-filled glassy architecture. And Corey Martin, another former Cloepfil disciple, has breathed new creative life into one of the city’s most acclaimed designers of libraries, churches and other public buildings, Hacker Architects.

Given how the firm has done its best work mostly out of town, I’d love to see Allied Works get more commissions here in Portland. A Portland Art Museum expansion, anyone? But even if that or another major public building doesn’t happen, Cloepfil’s presence has made a big impact on Portland’s built environment in more ways than just physically. Cool as this Cloepfil exhibit may be, our design community’s greatest currency is its spirit of collaboration and mentorship.

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