words Kieran Long
Daniel Libeskind’s extension to the Denver Art Museum could be seen as part of a phoney war between American cities to build attention-grabbing architecture – Zaha Hadid in Cincinnati, Jean Nouvel in Minneapolis, Rem Koolhaas in Seattle, to name a few. But this town feels remote from such inter-city marketing squabbles.
Denver, Colorado. It’s an American city indivisible from its state. Its setting is an expansive plain surrounded to the south and west by the Rocky Mountains, which occupy the horizon like the remote but tangible boundary of the local imagination. The city of two million people is the largest for 600 miles. Downtown Denver was built mostly in the 1980s, a cluster of intriguing postmodern towers and malls contrasting with the 19th-century suburbs, with grand houses inspired by Tuscan architecture.
The city’s civic centre is based around the State Capitol, a slim, golden dome that presides over the southern centre of the Mile-High City. The civic architecture of Denver is defined by a neoclassicism that is not terribly thrilling, except for moments in Civic Center Park, between the State Capitol and city hall. Just south of the park is a remarkable collection of buildings that constitutes the cultural node of this civic apparatus. It consists of Michael Graves’ 1995 City Library (a building that Graves apparently considers his best), the Denver Art Museum in a 1971 building by Italian architect Gio Ponti (Ponti’s only built work in North America) and a new museum extension composed of the unmistakable colliding silver boxes of Libeskind.
The Frederic C Hamilton extension to the Denver Art Museum is an important building for two main reasons: it is the first of Libeskind’s masterplans to be built – the development consists of a new plaza, a housing development and a car park; and the building was begun in 2000, before September 11 and his subsequent hiring as masterplanner of Ground Zero. Libeskind said he considers this building to be an exemplar of public-private patronage, and he admits that the process here and his high-profile struggles in New York are “incomparable” as processes. The freedom that genuine patronage has brought to the project is tangible, and it feels like a much more surefooted building than the lacklustre Imperial War Museum North, completed in 2002. Unlike that museum, the Hamilton building has had serious money spent on it – $75 million (£40m) for the museum building alone.
Libeskind’s masterplan is excellent and feels like a European architect’s attempt to attenuate the pomposity of American neoclassical monuments and the buttoned up typological postmodernism of Graves’ library. This is best demonstrated by introducing housing directly opposite the museum, connecting this complex to the residential district to the south. He describes this as a natural and pragmatic response to cost concerns. There was a requirement to provide a 1,000-space car park for the museum complex, and the original proposal was to put this underground. “We’ve just raised all this money – $62 million (£33m) – from a public bond, and now we are going to spend it all on the parking garage? So I said, ‘Build the garage normally, above ground, and we’ll wrap it in residential and commercial,’” says Libeskind.
The first phase of the housing is complete, with 56 units facing the museum’s east facade. The second phase will be a residential tower at the south-east corner of the site, which will complete the masterplan. The units are great inside, with generous enclosed balconies off open-plan living areas. Externally, though, the buildings are incredibly ugly – Libeskind’s three-dimensional intersecting blocks have become a two-dimensional graphic treatment that is applied to the facade. It looks all the more weak opposite Graves’ monstrous but imposing postmodern rotunda and collonade.
The urban strategy, though, seems logical, creating a plaza between the housing and museum, and a series of public spaces on a smaller scale. Nina Libeskind, Daniel’s wife and office manager, told me that the plaza is a Chamber Work, a reference to Libeskind’s exuberant drawings of the mid-1980s, which were instrumental in making his name in his early, unbuilt years. Libeskind’s polemical urban proposals of that time do bear a cosmetic resemblance to the jagged edges of the Acoma Plaza of the Arts he has created outside the museum. But the main reason to create the plaza is an entirely conventional one, continuing the axis established by the Beaux Arts-style Civic Center Park, which runs north-south through a neoclassical belvedere.
Libeskind’s plaza is more intimate, though, than the barren civic park, which was occupied only by homeless people and the odd tourist when I was there. The cultural complex as a whole has a more human scale. Libeskind has striven to make the axis habitable. Tables and chairs occupy the space beneath the dramatically sloping section of the east facade, also partially enclosed by the projecting box that houses the entrance to the new building.
The other main urban move is one that is more the result of Libeskind’s artistic licence. The huge cantilever that juts northwards over 13th Avenue makes a gateway of the road beneath it, and makes a connection of sorts between the extension and the existing building. The usually-blue Denver skies mean that the titanium-clad projection looks sharp and crisp.
The planning of the interior of the museum has a complexity that was absent from Libeskind’s work in Manchester. You enter a reception area that spreads out to your right with seating areas and a small cafe. Ticket desks are right in front, and to the left is the main staircase, underneath which sits the museum shop. The ceiling height on entering is low and intimate. It is only when you reach the foot of the stairs that the expansive atrium reveals itself. And it’s mightily impressive, skinned in white plasterboard (with an installation of blue LED panels by Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima) and descending like an avalanche from the fourth floor to the ground. The feeling of being submerged in an icy cave is increased by the window slots that wash walls with light at its highest reaches, without offering views out. There is a bridge link with the Ponti building on the first floor, and this prompts a north-south arrangement. This is partly for practical reasons, as the improved freight elevator and crate storage facilities are all in Libeskind’s new building, and the axis maintains a 3.5m width to service both buildings. This highly defined north-south orientation is accentuated by the fact that all the temporary exhibition galleries are in the south end of the building, and the permanent collection is housed mainly in the north end.
There is also a series of smaller, specialist galleries (for the museum’s collections of craft objects and art from Africa and Oceania and the extensive ceramics collections) that lead off from the main spaces, seemingly at random. This is emphatically a non-linear museum arrangement.
The galleries are all irregular shapes, and most have walls sloping in one direction or another; the white surfaces inside correspond with the shape of the titanium envelope. This aspect of Libeskind’s work remains confusing to me. His slavish attempts to represent the exterior form of intersecting shards and boxes on the interior leaves rooms with inexplicable pieces of drywall appearing in the corners, and needlessly tapering spaces that are then awkwardly dealt with by the exhibition designers. It is difficult not to see this as the building imposing itself too stridently on the gallery environment, and one wonders whether the curators’ professed enthusiasm for working within the tricky spaces will last after a decade has passed.
Libeskind’s overbearing formal repertoire always intoxicates exhibition designers. Just as at the Imperial War Museum, the installation here is an attempt at Libeskind-style display cabinets, with jagged forms with voids cut from them, as in the Africa gallery. This raises questions about the freedom of the exhibition designers as the building matures, and whether this is a building that provides possibilities for showing art, or aspires too much to being the foreground of visitors’ experience.
The problem emerges – what does it mean to make a building with its author so visible in every detail? There is no structural reason for the galleries to be identical inside and out. The architect’s formal preferences explain the exterior, and the exterior explains the interior. And that’s it.
The experience of a Libeskind building is one of understanding the fabric around you as remote and self-sufficient. It is not architecture that relies on the visitor to complete it. The object is an integer, and while spectacular, it is somehow not very human. Denver has got what it wants with this building, but it is just another addition to an architectural zoo that includes Ponti and Graves. It is a shame that Libeskind (who said he “fell in love with Denver” when he came here) had not been more interested in what the city’s identity might be, rather than his own.