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New Denver Art Museum Reflects Rocky Mountains

October 5, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Its walls push toward the sky, all sharp lines at odd angles, while a large prow extends dramatically over a downtown street. It’s the new Frederic Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, clad in 9,000 titanium tiles which shimmer in the western sunlight.

This is architecture as sculpture as art, and the architect, Daniel Libeskind, says the idea came directly from the landscape.

DANIEL LIBESKIND, Architect: I was flying into Denver, and I was flying over the Rockies. And I just intuitively took out my boarding pass — I didn’t have a sketch book — and I said, “This building should reflect the Rockies.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Libeskind, best known for designing the initial master plan for the World Trade Center site, won a competition for the Denver building six years ago. At the time, he was just completing the Jewish museum in Berlin and, in Denver, saw another chance to make a bold building and a bold statement about buildings.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: I don’t believe in this kind of neutral box that people are just neutral, they’re walking around. People have emotions. Architecture is not, to me, only an intellectual art, you know, with just mathematics and geometry. It’s how to bring those emotions into space.

Our great civic buildings have emotions, cathedrals, and so on. So I never believed this idea of, you know, “I’m not touching anything. I’m just providing a neutral box for something.” One has to take a position.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, clearly you have taken a position here. This is not a subtle, quiet building.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: Neither is Denver. Denver is not some quiet cow town. I talked to people, “What do they want? What kind of museum do they want?” And they all wanted a 21st-century museum. They didn’t want a rehash of a 19th-century of 20th-century museum from somewhere else, not some second-rate experience here, but a first-rate experience of this beautiful place.

Capturing the Rockies

JEFFREY BROWN: Denver now becomes the latest city to turn to bold architecture as a kind of calling card for its cultural institutions and, the hope goes, for the city itself. In art and urban planning circles, this is sometimes called the Bilbao effect.

When Frank Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997, it put what had once been a little-known, industrial city onto the international cultural and tourism map. Lewis Sharp, the director of the Denver Art Museum, was in Bilbao for the opening and was already thinking about an addition to his own institution.

LEWIS SHARP, Director, Denver Art Museum: I'll never forget walking down that side street, and catching my first glimpse of the Guggenheim, and saying to my wife, "Oh, my goodness."

I've never seen a building that made that -- the only thing I could think of is, probably as a young graduate student, the first time I went into one of those great gothic cathedrals. And you just kind of stand there and wonder at the scale of it and the impression that it must have made on people in the Middle Ages.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did you say to yourself, "I want one of those"?

LEWIS SHARP: That's exactly what I said. And I said that night, "If we ever have an opportunity to build a building in Denver, I hope we have the courage, the imagination, the good luck to engage an architect that will not only create a vessel for the collection and the program, but that will create a work of art." I think an art museum should and can do both.

A bold experiment in art

JEFFREY BROWN: But whether that's true has been an ongoing question in the museum world since Bilbao. Simply put, is the art lost or poorly presented inside a building that is itself a work of art? Denver's wide-ranging collection includes traditional Western painting, African sculpture, and contemporary art.

DAN KOHL, Director of Design, Denver Art Museum: You don't really know what to expect next.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the job of installing it into the new building fell to designer Daniel Kohl. His solution: lots of interior walls to separate and highlight works of art, paintings that hang away from sloping exterior walls, sculptures placed creatively in odd niches.

So this must have been quite a challenge for you?

DAN KOHL: This was pretty exciting. This space is very dynamic, as you can tell just looking around. The two perimeter walls are both tilted at different angles, this direction, and the ceiling is tilted at two differing angles.

And one of the ideas that we started talking was, instead of the traditional model of a gallery where you put the public in the center and the art is on the perimeter walls, what if we kind of turned that on its head, put the collection in the center, and let people navigate the perimeter of the wall so they can be up close to the architecture and they can experience that for its own sake?

JEFFREY BROWN: One work, a video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp titled "Rock Formation," was specifically commissioned to work with the peculiar architecture.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: You know, their art is living. It's not just trapped in, you know, an artificial device.

JEFFREY BROWN: As Kohl toured the empty museum with Daniel Libeskind and Lewis Sharp three weeks before the opening, they were pleased with many of the touches.

DAN KOHL: We crafted a space that we thought would really be perfect for the audience experiencing this particular piece of art.

LEWIS SHARP: But I also love it, as you enter the fourth floor, you're teased.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: You have the glow, right?

LEWIS SHARP: You see the glow of light, and so you know something is happening back here, but you really do have to look. You have to find it.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: Yes, "What is that?" Yes.

LEWIS SHARP: And then you have that sense of discovery when you do.

A financial, community investment

JEFFREY BROWN: But as with any new building, the question remains how it will all work with several thousand people crowding into these spaces.

For the city, of course, the even bigger question is what impact the new building will have. A lot is riding on this. The city came up with two-thirds of the $90 million price tag through a public bond initiative; the rest was raised privately.

Mayor John Hickenlooper wasn't in office when the project began, but he clearly thinks it's worth more than its weight in very expensive titanium.

MAYOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Denver: I think, if people think that a building like this is just image and that that's all it's supplying, I think they're crazy, because I think a building like this supplies spirit and soul to a community and brings a community together.

And it's not a superficial thing. That's what a city wants a building to do; the city wants to come out a different city, by virtue of having that building as part of its fabric.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the new building is now part of an expanding cultural district, joining the original 1971 Art Museum Building designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti and the Denver Public Library by American Michael Graves, built in 1996.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: This works actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new focus on architecture is extending to private development, as well. Libeskind is working with a local firm on a hotel and tower near the museum. He's already completed a condominium complex across the courtyard, designing everything from the center kitchen islands, to the odd-shaped windows in the master bedrooms, to the parking garage for the complex.

Of course, it's funny. We think of you as an architect creating this great museum, but you're also making parking lots.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: Of course. Well, you have to build a garage. You have to be a practical -- you know, I love architecture because you have to deal with everything, and everything is important.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first reviews of Daniel Libeskind's Denver museum have been positive, but the real test of the building's impact is still to come.

TOUR GUIDE: Let's go down to the lobby. We'll look at that exit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Will it double attendance, as museum officials hope, and will it bring benefits to the city, as well as a change to its skyline?