A New Museum for Denver
by George Hornbein
Tatsuo Miyajima, ENGI, 2006. Denver Art Museum. Photo: George Hornbein.
I’d heard that the roof leaks on Daniel Libeskind’s new Fredrick C. Hamilton addition to the Denver Art Museum. But that wasn’t my main concern when I visited; they can fix the leak. I had seen some marvelous photographs of Liebeskind’s dramatic forms and I was hoping that the building would not disappoint when I actually got to see it. Would its scale work on the site? Would the soaring forms carry through from the exterior to the inside? Would the gallery spaces end up being broken into a labyrinth of boxes? Or worse, would the forms fight with the art and dominate it (as unfortunately occurs so often in contemporary museum design)?
The ticket windows are at the base of a glass stairway that frames the building’s entrance, thus allowing museum patrons to take care of business before the museum experience begins. The little plaza before the museum is bounded by the museum’s slanted titanium planes, the Michael Graves’ library, Libeskind’s Museum Residence condo, the thirty-five year-old Gio Ponti museum building, and the walkway to the city. The scale is human, the feel is light, and with the postmodern Graves building, the plaza lacks the gravity one traditionally expects from a public complex displaying instead a sense of humor that speaks well of Denver’s sense of itself as city.
As you cross the plaza, the museum’s titanium wall plates soar over you and glow from direct and reflected sunlight and you are drawn to touch them to see if they feel as soft as they look. The tilted wall planes and the steel skeletal structure expressed on the exterior are carried through to the interior where the structure is wrapped in gypsum board rather than titanium. The distinction between walls and ceiling planes is not always clear and you find yourself walking through arrays of folded planes.
As you first walk into the atrium it seem overly dark. But as your eyes adapt you realize that the window slits admit natural light in measured amounts that do not dominate the artificial light, producing a play of cool natural light with warm artificial light. Six-inch wide mirrored disks with randomly changing blue LED numbers further accent this play of color. The disks, which were conceived by Tatsuo Miyajima, are randomly set in the wall planes and help to define the walls.
Roy Lichtenstein, The Violin, 1976. Denver Art Museum. Photo: George Hornbein.
The main stairway follows the bent wall planes to the upstairs galleries. The rooms are irregular, but here there is a traditional ceiling plane. In the large galleries, movable partition walls break up the interior space and form the display surfaces. The partition walls are about a foot thick and are quite substantial, while still giving the curator flexibility in arranging variable gallery layouts. The height of the partitions is a few feet short of the ceilings, enough so that the flow of space in the gallery room itself is not interrupted. In smaller galleries, the walls are sometimes tilted, making the display surface unconventional. I spoke with a few patrons who found that the sloped walls made them feel a little queasy.
There is no doubt that the museum’s angular forms and unconventional slits of natural light affect the displays of art. But rather than fighting the art for dominance, the environment enhanced the artwork and could accentuate the abstract forms of the pieces. There is, for example, a Roy Lichtenstein painting whose angular forms play with the lines of the building in a way that would never happen in a conventional gallery space, inviting you to extend the lines of the painting until the building forms pick them up and carry the lines outside the painting’s frame. On an adjacent outdoor terrace, there was what I took to be a series of stainless steel fresh air vents. I walked around to the other side expecting to find an array of louvers that, instead, turned out to be an array of cubes forming a Donald Judd sculpture.
This museum is an exciting place, which, for me, was never disappointing. The forms are charged with energy. The detailing is beautifully and logically carried out. And the art is displayed in a way that allows the building forms and sculptured light to enhance the work.
Atlanta, May 2007
George Hornbein is an architect and principle in the firm of HOKO Architects in Atlanta