Clearly, the Mile High City's cultural cognoscenti are not architecture wimps.
Denver, like the Twin Cities, took part in the '00s global building spree by eminent architects, and ended up with two signature buildings demonstrating its commitment to art and architecture.
A Daniel Libeskind-designed addition to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and David Adjaye's new Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) are as different in style and temperament as the recent expansions of Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Both provide a good study on what a museum can be.
Coincidentally, both are the first U.S. buildings completed by their architects. The Tanzania-born, London-based Adjaye, who lectured at the Walker in 2007, designed a yet-to-be-realized, mixed-use tower in downtown St. Paul, while Libeskind's Ground Zero masterplan was modified beyond recognition.
Denver Art Museum addition: aggressive yet seductive
Libeskind's 146,000-square-foot Frederic C. Hamilton Building is no ordinary museum structure. It is aggressive yet seductive, and revolutionary like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao but with sharp edges and spears, and gravity-defying cantilevered forms. Breathtaking, it overwhelms on first approach and conjures up an exploding celestial body with its fractured muscular appendages. Libeskind sees its angular, erupting physique as a metaphor for the geology of the Rocky Mountain peaks reflected in its glinting titanium tile skin.
Critics of the $110 million expansion -- which added 60,000 square feet of gallery space when it opened three years ago -- say it's more about sculptural form and the architect's self-aggrandizement than the nuts and bolts of collecting, conserving and exhibiting art.
Indeed, Libeskind's building is a new breed with a bevy of challenges. Like how to hang art in these shape-shifting spaces. Or to move through the galleries without leaving a trail of bread crumbs. A right angle is a luxury, and the interior is as visually exhausting as the exterior is exhilarating. Any conventional traffic grid or intuitive path is nonexistent. Wood bump-outs were installed on the floors to keep people from hitting their heads on the angled walls. Notably, the spaces are more sympathetic to non-Western art such as African sculpture and textiles
Rising to 120 feet, the open atrium is rimmed by a steep stairway, and walls jut out or veer away at dramatic angles. Skylights open the cavernous space to daylight but it still seems dark with its dark stone floors. There are dizzying vistas from above and the dynamic space falls away from itself as if an ever-expanding galaxy.
The current exhibition, "Embrace," curated by the museum's new director, Christoph Heinrich, may be the answer to mastering the atrium spaces. It features commissioned installations by 18 artists whose work engages and merges with the site, such as murals painted directly on steep, angled walls (Katharina Grosse, Lawrence Weiner), sculptural works suspended from slanted ceilings (John McEnroe), or an enclosed space transformed into a hallucinatory chamber through video projection (Charles Sandison).
The building connects, by an enclosed glass and steel bridge (translation: skyway), to DAM's fortress-like 1971 North Building, designed by revered Italian modernist Gio Ponti. Ponti's faceted, gray glass tile cladding is echoed by Libeskind's titanium skin. Across a plaza is a classic Graves postmodern public library.
But it doesn't stop there. Libeskind has developed a landscape masterplan. On the other side of Martin Plaza from DAM is Libeskind's seven-story glass and zinc Museum Residences and parking ramp. Sited about the plaza are public artworks such as "Big Sweep" by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg (who did Minneapolis' iconic "Spoonbridge and Cherry") and Beverly Pepper's "Denver Monoliths" (think Minneapolis Central Library's "Ptolemy's Wedge").
Museum of Contemporary Art: an eco-friendly zen box
In contrast to the extroverted DAM, the two-year-old MCA is more like a zen teahouse. Comprising four floors, the 27,000-square-foot, $15.9 million building is of human scale and sits quietly on a street corner in LoDo (lower downtown). A non-collecting museum, it houses five galleries, a shop, a cafe, a live art/lecture hall, an art research library and the "Idea Box" education center. A rooftop cafe provides city and mountain views. Clad in a dark-gray glass skin and of elegant proportions, it is transformed at night into a glowing minimalist box.
The galleries, with their 18-foot ceilings, are neither too big nor too small. Adjaye attributes this comfort zone to using the ancient mathematical Golden Mean to design the spaces. Encircling the galleries is a promenade, and small Juliet balconies provide views into spaces below.
It all works. These are harmonious spaces. When I visited in early January, three radically different shows -- photos by Matthew Buckingham, cast cotton pulp sculptures by Arlene Shechet and vibrant large-scale, pour paintings by Barnaby Furnas -- were somehow all simpatico with their environment.
The eco-friendly, Gold LEED-certified building has radiant floor heating. Strategically placed picture windows bring the outside in, and T-shaped channel skylights provide daylighting for 75 percent of the spaces. Its double-skinned facade reduces energy use and allows for better air circulation and light penetration. With no dedicated parking, the MCA encourages walking, cycling and mass transit.
If the DAM raises hell, then the MCA contemplates. This is not a bad thing. Like the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute, one complements the other, generating a more dynamic and engaged art community.
St. Paul-based Mason Riddle writes about the visual arts, architecture and design for local and national publications.