Architectural Startup: Brad Cloepfil | James Petty | pettydesign

In the Fall of 2013, I sat down with Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP), Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works), Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects), Dan Wood (Work.AC), and Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office). I wanted to understand and document how each of them formed their respective offices. I was after the nitty-gritty details not typically published in the glossy magazines. I was looking for the hard times, the struggle, and the projects that were never published, but paid the bills. This interview is part of a series of 5 posts that will go through each of these architects and discuss their beginning.

Brad Cloepfil is the single founder of Allied Works Architecture. Originally founded in Portland, the studio has expanded recently to New York City. More information regarding Allied Works Architecture can be found here.

Architectural Startup: Brad Cloepfil | James Petty | pettydesign

James Petty: Coming out of the University of Oregon with your Bachelors degree in 1980, you went to work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. As your first job, that is quite different from what you are doing now.

Brad Cloepfil: That was a different era of architecture. It was the tail end of where you still were encouraged in school to go apprentice. Most of the firms that you apprenticed with were I.M. Pei, SOM, and the bigger firms. That was the end of the era of the big firm. There were no studios in the United States. I went to Los Angeles because my girlfriend was in law school there. I went to talk to Morphosos, and that was when Michael Rotondi was there. They had two people working for free. Frank Gehry had six people working for free. Eric Owen Moss had a storefront office by my apartment with one person in it. So it was just the beginning of this kind of studio office. Whatever the terminology would be of the new generation. Then I went to Europe to work because there were interesting small offices there. I worked for Mario Botta in Switzerland. I went there because I was clearly not into the corporate culture. Who would be? But that was sort of your choice. There were small firms and big firms, but they were all businesses. Not a studio. The only place that was a culture was in Europe or Japan. I wanted to go work for Tadao Ando, but I didn’t speak Japanese and I was intimidated. I could speak a little French, so I went to Switzerland. Then I went back to the United States and went to graduate school at Columbia. Even at Columbia at that time, Steven Holl was living at his office and sleeping under his desk. What we take for granted now was really just starting. I worked for Mitchell Giurgola, which Steven Holl had set me up with. It was an academic-corporate office. Steven was my professor along with Tod [Williams] and Billie [Tsien]. They had two employees after they had graduated which were friends of mine. That culture was really just beginning everywhere. I basically realized there was no place to work in a way. You had corporate firms or you worked for free. To find a job with Tod and Billie when they had two employees was pretty rough. So I decided to start my own thing. By that time I had worked off and on for seven years. It was discouraging. It was a different motivation than what it is now. I basically went out in the search of apprenticing for good architects. Other than my year of European experience, I was hard put. I got some good experience at these larger firms I guess you could say. I went back to Oregon and worked for some professors of mine who had previously worked for Kahn’s office. I got to work all the way through a building with them, which was a good experience. So I did get the experience in the seven years to do buildings.

JP: When you left New York and went back to Oregon, you went back to teach though.

BC: Right. I went back to Oregon. I taught. I worked for my old professor. But my whole intent was to start my own office as soon as possible.

JP: You started an office with Studio Architecture with John Cava. What happened with that?

BC: It didn’t work out. We were great friends, but not great partners. So we split and that is when I started Allied Works.

JP: You have made explicit that you were never interested in making a profit, but in making architecture. Did you initially fund Allied Works by teaching at Oregon?

BC: Yeah. When I went back to work for Hacker for two and a half years, I was a project architect on a library to sort of finish off my apprenticeship if you will. A belief that doesn’t exist today frankly. I felt as though I got all I could get. I rented a space with no heat and was doing a competition for a courthouse in Alabama. I asked John Cava if he wanted to join me. I had this space and a couple of students working with me and he wanted to join. That was how Studio Architecture got started. But teaching was a huge part of it. When I was in New York, working for Giurgola, I said I wanted to go back to Oregon and start an office. Since I am a kid from a lower-middle class background, I couldn’t do architecture as a hobby. I went back. I worked really hard to start the University of Oregon-Portland program because it didn’t exist. There was at the time no teaching opportunity in Portland. So I had to convince the University of Oregon to do this full-time Portland program. So Cava and I did that so I could have a teaching job so I could leave Hack and start my own office. I had to sort of be entrepreneurial with the teaching. We literally had an advertising campaign at the University. We put up posters to find thirty students because that would fund itself. That funded Studio Architecture and later Allied Works.

JP: Did you initially do competition work with Allied Works?

BC: No. We had building projects. I had a project for this brewery that won a PA Award. Our first project won a PA award in those days. Then we were doing crappy little remodels and stuff. I think we were like eight people and then we went down to two people and then we got Wieden + Kennedy Headquarters and that was the end of the story.

JP: That was when Dan Wieden came to you and what made Allied Works what it is today.

BC: Yeah, no question. 1996 was when it all blew up.

JP: Did you realize when you started working on that project that it would be a marketing tool for your future work?

BC: When I moved back to Portland, I said there were only two people that would allow us to do real architecture: Nike and Weiden + Kennedy. I knew my hometown. At that time, I didn’t even know Wieden + Kennedy was looking for an architect. It was five years later when they called me up. I knew we would be able to do something for them; I had no idea we would be able to do what we did.

JP: It was a great break.

BC: Terry Reilly and Jon Keenum, who still have a firm Reilly and Keenum, are friends of mine. By that time they had their studio for over eight years and I was just starting out. When I got this thirty-million-dollar project it pissed them off so much. In New York, people were still doing apartments and you would be lucky to get a house in the Hamptons. While in Oregon, I got a thirty million dollar project with two employees.

JP: That is a difficult task for people starting smaller studios in New York. People get stuck in the rhetoric of these little remodel and never get a big project.

BC: It is either that or developer projects. If you will notice, in our repertoire there is very few of those. I don’t know how many developers are really patrons of architecture. There are some.

JP: You have been really good at maintaining work in the cultural and creative works. Even the housing projects have references to artists. Was this always your intention and do you strive to maintain this workflow?

BC: We only get hired by people who want to commission architecture. I mean really. We are not a professional service firm if you will. I think that is why we don’t’ have a lot of university work. We really want to do something that has meaning. I think it is just coincidental. We are doing a university project for Clemson right now for the architecture school, which is an interesting project. So I suppose it depends on the client. It is really on who hires us.

JP: You continue to call your practice a studio instead of an office. In 2003, you opened up a New York City location. How does the East Coast affect this whole studio atmosphere and how does it relate to your personal life?

BC: It wreaks havoc in my personal life. Architects generally aren’t so strong on their personal life because of time commitments and things. Having two offices makes it crazy. But of course, it is thrilling. We opened it originally because of the Museum of Arts and Design and Duchess County Houses and we had won a park competition that never happened. We had a lot of work so there was logic to it. For eight years, I went back and forth every other week. It was insane.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at some of the other interviews in this series:
Gregg Pasquarelli (SHoP)
Paul Lewis (Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects)
Dan Wood (Work.AC)
Stephen Cassell (Architecture Research Office)

About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.