There is a shared dream of architecture. A wish that we have, both for architecture, and that we desire to carry out through architecture. In this dream we reshape the world around us like powerful wizards, holding out our hands in front of our bodies and, with mere gestures, cause the landscape to be moved and shaped around us. Rock rises from within the earth, dimples form burning brilliant blisters of crystal and glass into steel and sand, wood grows instantaneous into the deep burnished hues of old-growth, as if we command not only space but time itself.
Much of this dream, we have accomplished. Not us, but humanity— the collective us. Architecture, from its most basic brick baking and basket weaving roots, has accomplished incredible feats. We live within these accomplishments, we gawk at them from inside and outside. We call them buildings— a work derived from the most basic human activity of building. This is what we, humans, do. But again, not us. This is what architects do, commanding the symphonic orchestra of supply chains, material engineering, and construction labor.
The artistry of this human activity is on full display at Case Work: Studies in Form, Space & Construction at the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibition displays the models, sketches, and experimental materials samples of Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture, a Portland and New York based architecture practice responsible for some magnificent works of contemporary architecture.
But it is not just the finished buildings that are beautiful, as the exhibition shows. The intricate models, the minimal sketches, and the fantastical materials samples made as part of the architectural design process combine to create a sense that architecture is an intricate assemblage of disciplines, harnessing technological skills that border on the magical. The materials samples are arranged in a series of cases and displays called “tool boxes,” but are more akin to jewelry cases. In each example, small bits of material and model show how the architectural practice experiments with combining metals, concrete, structure, absence, light, and opacity— until the right combinations and balances are found that can then be incorporated into the building design. It is impossible to look at these models and samples without a sense of awe, at how seemingly pedestrian materials like paper, concrete, and copper pipe can be converted into gorgeous ingots of sparkling, organic beauty. Compressed metals, carefully chosen concrete aggregate fills, and rough hewn, reclaimed wood glisten under the exhibition lights in a way that would not be out of place in a natural history museum’s collection of rare amethyst, crocoite, and twinned pyrite.
These luminous, gem-like qualities of the architectural models are also what gives me pause. Architecture makes sculptural material into precious commodities. Architecture may have begun among the reeds and clay of the river bank, but now it sources its materials from remote quarries, premium fabricators, and dwindling caches of reclaimed wood from forests that no longer exist. Architecture, while a distinctly human activity, is also the province of the rich and powerful. The projects that Allied Works Architecture builds bares this out— expansive country estates, premium design firm headquarters, and even the wings of art museums. An art museum is a certain sense of “public,” certainly. And yet, it is a different sort of public than housing projects, train stations, and public schools. This is a top-down public, just as architecture is a top-down art, shaping the cities that we live in with economic power beyond our reach. A sculpted, louvered light screen hanging above an art gallery might as well be made from gold leaf, in the sense that the average artist would have just as unlikely a chance to every touch and sculpt such a work themselves.
These social truths do not make the work any less beautiful and magnificent in craftspersonship, but even the most democratic charcoal and paper sketches of the exhibition remain trapped between large panes of archival quality sheet glass. Architecture is, today, a fantastic and mystical art of the inaccessible, an occult power that reveals as much about our material world, as our world’s materials.