The Denver Art Museum addition represents both fulfillment and vindication for Daniel Libeskind. While the architect witnessed the erosion and diminution of his plans for Ground Zero, he has been able to realize an enriched, lively urban ensemble on the streets of Denver. Simultaneously, the structure builds on motifs first articulated at the Jewish Museum Berlin, reinforcing its experiential qualities and displaying a kind of architectural maturity intertwined with its subject. Finally, this most articulate architect has realized the American project he has promised repeatedly in words and images.
The museum extends the architectural stakes in a nondescript precinct bordering the prospering Mile High City’s urban core. Buildings that had struggled individually for decades to establish some kind of relationship are knitted together into a cultural center. Across the street, Michael Graves’s 1996 library, framed and vignetted into a series of episodic images of Tuscan tower and drum, never looked better. Literally tied by an elevated pedestrian bridge to Gio Ponti’s 1971 castellated tower that housed the museum’s collections, the titanium-clad addition, like shards of Kryptonite, reaches for thin air while a massive cantilevered prow looms toward the city with eccentric insistence. (Libeskind has cited the Front Range of the Rockies as his inspiration.) No one will ignore this urban sculpture.
All is not polemical brio. Its more subtle accomplishment lies in its urban fit: Running east–west, the museum forms the northern boundary of a pedestrian promenade. When conventional wisdom might have dictated excavation, a bold decision to cloak two elevations of the above-grade parking garage with condominium housing at once compresses the individual elements into legible density, costs less to execute than burying the cars, and will attract the larger public. Brilliantly, the planner has added the authenticity of human presence with the guaranteed comings and goings of residents across the plaza.
Such programmatic ambition, difficult to achieve in the rough-and-tumble of this or any polis, found supporters throughout the city, including the late Jennifer Moulton, a highly regarded city planner and project champion. Denver native Brit Probst, principal with Libeskind’s allied local firm, the Davis Partnership Architects, also cites Denver’s political, economic, and arts leadership, which united and stuck behind the plan. His own office and Libeskind’s shared personnel in both New York and Denver, and their own intraprofessional collaboration insured a technical finesse and polish that many contemporary projects lack.
Inside, Libeskind creates a processional sequence that begins quietly in a transitional space that opens upward. As in Berlin, a staircase defines the heart of the experience for the visitor, but whereas historical and social gravitas provided the explicit text in Germany, Denver evokes a lighter mood—call it elation. Traveling through the museum, ascending in order to encounter art, each footfall sets the rhythmic experience. Step by step, level by level, the space unfolds. Walls that hovered outside form tilted interior planes, leaning away from linear stairs toward the light, which rakes across the white surfaces, beckoning higher. Have we seen a stair rendered with such élan in many decades?
Nevertheless, restraint characterizes the spiral. While Wright’s Guggenheim Museum offers a vertiginous circular descent around an open atrium, Libeskind modulates the void, never allowing a distracting overview to disturb the equilibrium. In a city marked by the bowl of the sky and the vastness of the surrounding plains, the controlled glimpses through public space of the museum honors the human scale and, unlike every mall in sight, doesn’t grab for too much air.
What of the art? How can a building with so few right angles provide the flat surfaces, the walls, the perspectives that frame the views and provide the expected encounters with two-dimensional paintings, or even flat-screened monitors? What objects can fit in the sloping corners? Remarkably, the dedicated galleries provide intimate spaces for establishing the relationship of individual to work and to idea. Where geometry runs out of wall, paintings literally free-float, with little lost.
All is not perfection. Smaller galleries, tucked into the eaves, seem cramped and doll-like. And one might ask how many buildings with such assertive, three-dimensional personalities do we need in our cities? How many museums that outshine their installations? How many shards are too many?
Obvious triggers for raised eyebrows include the architects’ willful flourishes, such as the cloud-form patterning of the nearby condominium’s curtain walls that will not age well. Yet such arguments pale beside the scope of the accomplishment. As a totality, the Denver Art Museum achieves an urban unity, drawing residents and visitors downtown to experience art through a daring architectural act. In Denver, today’s architecture reaches for the sky.