Monday, July 05, 2010

Daniel Liebeskind’s Rocky Mountain High

Clearly, the standard was set by Frank Gehry’s gleaming museum in Bilbao and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Much has been written about how Gehry and his associates used sophisticated computer programs to scope out the complex forms that make up those dazzling buildings.

It always seemed to me, however, that the interiors of those spaces would be so reinforced and engineered that they would make the spaces claustrophobic and alienating, with essentially no vertical walls to enclose the space and windows punched out at strange, vertiginous angles.

Daniel Liebeskind’s new Denver Art Museum faces many of these challenges as well. Planted baldly to the south west of the older Hamilton wing, the prime motif of the new wing is enormous, slashing diagonals of space, bordering on the bombastic; and like the Gehry structures, sheathed in a gleaming metal skin.

To be sure, the outdoor shape of the building is dramatic and eye catching, especially by comparison to the forbidding castle-like Hamilton building, which looks like a ten story prison tower, except for the use of the beautiful dimensional stone-like surface and the elegant clerestory windows punched into that surface. But the Hamilton wing of the museum suffers in the way a lot of modernist/immediately post-modernist architecture does: while it may have looked grand when it was new, from the context of the times and the location, it has not aged gracefully. The Hamilton wing, which was completed in 2006, looks like it could join the ranks of those other modernist icons – Lincoln Center in NY, The Music Center in Los Angeles, The Kennedy Center in Washington, Empire Plaza in Albany – as dated and frankly, a little ugly. This is not to say that the Hamilton wing architecture resembles any of those other modernist milestones, but rather that the impulse of how you plan and build public structures is related.

The museum is set a bit outside of what has come to be called 'LoDo', the lively, popular neighborhood just south of downtown. The museum is in the Civic Center Golden Triangle neighborhood, adjacent to the State Capital, the Denver Mint, and the handsome Denver Public Library .

The great surprise is that inside Liebeskind’s angular prism-like structure, the interior spaces are lovely, slightly mysterious, in a playful hide-and-seek way, and they are quite welcoming.

While there may not be a right angle in the building (except for doors and individual window panes), the spaces never feel threatening or disorienting. Instead, they unfold in a series of surprising, graceful spaces, which seem quite happy to have humans within their volume.

It’s not easy to tell where you are, exactly. The windows in the Liebeskind wing are narrow, and looking out them doesn’t help much to orient the viewer.

Rumor has it that Liebeskind’s ideas for the museum were inspired by the nearby Rocky Mountains, the same inspiration Santiago Calatrava’s is purported to have used as the basis of his Denver International Airport main terminal. Their interpretations couldn’t be more different, but while Liebeskind faced endless challenges to replace the World Trade Center in New York, civic leaders in Denver largely embraces his adventurous ideas.

The result is one of the most eye-catching and welcoming spaces west of the Mississippi, and signals Denver’s arrival on the international scene, not just for it’s football team, mountains, and fresh air, but also for it’s art, culture and architecture.

NB: Form Magazine has just announced that Calatrava will oversee additions to the Denver Airport; the designs for which are typically dramatic and compelling. Take a look at Form's report for the details.


Rose said...

The Denver Art Museum is a bit outside of LoDo ... more in the Civic Center or Golden Triangle neighborhoods.

Glad you ultimately liked the Libeskind-designed building -- it's mae a lot of things possible, like hosting the current King Tut exhibition.

Jon Beaupre said...

Roses comments are greatly appreciated! Thanks much for the heads up; I hope you won't mind that I 'appropriated' some of your syntax in an edit of the posting! I'm grateful for your taking the time to respond.