by Inara Verzemnieks, The Oregonian
Thursday September 18, 2008, 10:50 PM
NEW YORK CITY--The lollipop building had been a part of New Yorkers' memories for more than 40 years, a strange, mysterious place with Venetian whisperings, an impenetrable marble skin, tiny portal-like windows and loopy-topped columns evoking its candy-sweet nickname.
Ross William Hamilton/The OregonianBrad Cloepfil leads a parade of architecture through the airy interior of his redesigned Museum of Arts and Design.Situated at the edge of Columbus Circle, it began life as a gallery devoted to the art collection of a supermarket heir, eventually passed into the hands of the city and finally, was abandoned and closed-up, an enigmatic white bunker.
Over the years, despite its quirkiness, or perhaps because of it, the building at 2 Columbus Circle became something of an icon, a marker, a point of reference in the city, a landmark derided until the derision turned to love.
So messing with the lollipop building, re-imaging and re-interpreting it, was guaranteed to be a fraught proposition. And so it is significant that the task of redesigning 2 Columbus Circle -- and all that this act entailed (a very public grappling with questions of past and present, preservation and change; can something be both old and new?) -- was awarded to an Oregonian: Brad Cloepfil, principal of the architectural firm Allied Works, which Cloepfil started in Portland in 1994.
On Thursday, after a six-year process marked by preservationists' lawsuits and endless public scrutiny, Cloepfil's vision for 2 Columbus Circle -- the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design -- was officially unveiled to the public for the first time in a sleek preview attended by the national press.
Among the details on display: the terra cotta skin of the building, created from 22,000 handcrafted tiles, which feature an iridescent glaze that took two years to perfect and which react to the light in different ways depending on the time of year and time of day. And downstairs, an auditorium that pays deliberate homage to the original architecture of 2 Columbus Circle, which was designed by Edward Durrell Stone.
Stone was hired by a wealthy man named Huntington Hartford who wanted to showcase his private collection of figurative paintings -- a sort of one-man protest against all the abstract works at the Museum of Modern Art. Hartford apparently had a predilection for the swank, and the auditorium references that time in the building's history: the dark wood paneling, the gold and red-color scheme, a ceiling veiled as if in chain mail.
In keeping with this motif, the opening will be followed by swanky events -- cocktail receptions and gala events. And undoubtedly, even more weighty commissions, because it marks a crucial moment in Cloepfil's career. "I now feel like I have a body of work," he has said, and 2 Columbus Circle cements his place among the major architects working today. In other words, Cloepfil is white-hot.
Just the night before the opening, Cloepfil, who grew up in Metzger and attended the University of Oregon, had returned to Columbia University, where he earned his graduate degree in architecture, to address students and faculty. The school's dean, Mark Wigley, pronounced him a unique voice in architecture today: "That this paying respect to the most traditional understanding of what a building can be, can be turned into such an experiment ... I think there are very, very few architects in the world who have that level of command in that kind of specialized way."
Indeed, Cloepfil, perhaps best known in Portland for his design of the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District, beat out big, international names to do the 2 Columbus Circle redesign, including one who went on to win the Pritzker Prize, the world's most prestigious architecture award. At the time, Cloepfil was just completing his first major commission, the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.
The idea of supporting an emerging American architect appealed to the Museum of Arts and Design. "That this could be a defining part of an architectural career was very important to us," said Holly Hotchner, director of the museum, as people drifted into the building's lobby, where the original lollipop columns remain behind the street-facing windows, framing the view of the world outside.
During the past six years, Cloepfil has gone on to other big commissions, largely museums and cultural institutions: A massive addition to the Seattle Art Museum, a renovation and expansion of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. But none will ever receive the same level of scrutiny as 2 Columbus Circle.
On Thursday, Cloepfil, with a bottle of water in hand, navigated microphones and cameras. He met with journalists from The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, the New York arts press, and major design magazines. For perhaps the thousandth time, he talked about what he had done to the building: a deliberate referencing of the past by preserving its original size and shape and color, while at the same time trying to give it a new life -- and its visitors a new experience -- by opening it up, literally carving ribbons of concrete from its body to let the light in.
He called this a kind of editing. But in many ways, it was as much a kind of archaeology, a stripping away to show what had been there all along.
Walking through the galleries, it was possible to catch glimpses of the city through these ribbons of glass: a patchwork of references, nothing whole or complete, just snatches of disembodied brownstones and floating skyscraper tops.
"I love this corner cut -- the way this building just hovers," he said, pointing to a corner of the gallery, where inside and outside blurred.
One of the criticisms that has been leveled at Cloepfil's building is that it is not bold enough, not enough of a break with the past. But this blurring of past and present seemed to be what Cloepfil wanted. He seemed to like playing with the tension between what you thought you remembered -- is that the lollipop building? -- and what you now see. That it was possible for the two to occupy the same space.
"The ambiguity of memory," he said. "Isn't that sometimes the nature of cities?"