Interview: Brad Cloepfil, Architect Of CAM, Returns To Co-Curate 'Place Is The Space'

By Ashley Ray
In Culture
Brad Cloepfil, architect of CAM, courtesy of Allied Works Architecture

Brad Cloepfil, architect of CAM, courtesy of Allied Works Architecture

 There is considerable buzz around the new exhibition “Place is the Space,”and for good reason. Opening at the Contemporary Art Museum this Friday night, the show features five artists and their site-specific installations, created specifically for the design and aesthetic of CAM. The space which these works occupy was created by Brad Cloepfil, co-curator of the show, in the building that he designed. ALIVE talked to Cloepfil about his return to CAM 10 years after its completion, not only as its architect, but now as a curator.

ALIVE: You started your architecture firm, Allied Works Architecture, in 1994, and the Contemporary Art Museum STL was completed by your firm in 2003. How did you become involved with this project and what did it mean for your company at that point in time? 

Brad Cloepfil: They (CAM) had an advisory committee for a short list. Terry Reiley, then at MOMA, put us on as a wild card. We were definitely an outsider, a no name, up against some very well known firms. So that’s how I came to know about the project.  Betsy Millard, the director at the time, flew up to meet us in Portland. We hit it off and then I came down for the interview, and lo and behold we got the job.

The place (AWA) was started to do creative work, and at the time art spaces were some of the most exciting work you could get.

After CAM, you went on to design other art buildings. How did your experience with the STL project inform your next designs?

I learned a tremendous amount from the St. Louis project.  It was more than a little intimidating to build next to the Tadao Ando building, and a challenge with it being next to that decimated neighborhood.  The context was charged.  So we had to ask, how do you make a space that really anticipates new work? It’s a space that can be anything; how does one make a context for that? So through these questions I learned a tremendous amount.

Ten years after the opening of CAM, you have teamed up with chief curator Dominic Molon to co-curate “Place is the Space.” What brought you back to St. Louis?

First of all it’s really thrilling. What brought me back? About two years ago I taught at Wash U; they brought me in to teach a guest studio. It just sort of reconnected everything.  During that time we launched the first Allied Works book.  I met Dominic Molon at a panel discussion at CAM about that book, and I believe that’s when I really first met Dominic, and that’s when we first got to talk about curation.

When you create space for art, you realize how crucial the art is to the space and how critical the role of the curator is. You can create beautiful rooms but that’s not what really matters.  The art matters, and how the art is conceived and installed is critical. So the conversation started when I was there at that time, and when I got the call from Dominic for this, I was thrilled.

What aesthetic qualities were you looking for when you and Mr. Molon were selecting artists for the exhibition?

We had initial discussions in person about our ideas of the building and how we would approach the artists, and talked through how architectural the art would be. We had a couple of ideas, but he’s really the professional, so we sort of came at it together.  Dominic was so gracious to invite me, and to indulge in the conversation back and forth was just a treat.

Also, just the chance to come back 10 years later and co-curate a show, help install and conceive a show in the building you designed is incredible and unbelievably rare.  I really can’t think of another museum in which this has happened.  I could do this every five years! And I can’t quite believe it’s been 10 years, that’s the other part.

Please speak about how the installations work with the space of the museum.

I think the range of work is interesting; there are pieces of scale, pieces of sound, the Overton piece that really uses the space. That piece and the sound piece are really about the space. The range is what’s really exciting. Dominic and I really got into that conversation, about that range and the artists. Two artists use architecture and allow the architecture of the building to function in a more profound way.

When a visitor leaves the exhibition, what do you think (or hope) he or she will take away from the experience?

A new perception of some kind.  I haven’t seen the pieces installed so it’s hard to say. Certainly, when I design museums, I hope the space prepares you for something new.  The architecture itself, the scale and context, all of these things contribute to that.

“Place is the Space” is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis from Sep 6-Dec 29.

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