Denver Art Museum: The Castle And The Bower

Okay let's get this one out of the way: Gio Ponti's Denver Art Museum is not his best building.  It would be nobody's best building.  But it is a very brilliant building, even though it tries a lot of ideas that don't always work.

Works: the basic premise.  Instead of being a classic big, sprawling, flat, three-level supermall of art, like the Metropolitain Museum in New York, Ponti stacked the museum in a seven-story castle-like structure.  Every floor is devoted to one area of specialty, which made it like entering a special realm devoted to that area.  For collections that are not as strong in Eastern Seaboard museums, like American Indian Art, Western American Art, or Spanish Colonial Art, this effect of specialness is pronounced.  What are usually the leftovers in museums with powerful Renaissance Painting collections are here the primary reason to visit.  While the arrangement sacrifices some curatorial connections between periods and cultures by this separation, for this museum and the particular collections it specializes in, it works.

Works, sometimes: the castle idea.  The building looks like a castle, and against the snowy mountains surrounding Denver, the conceit really works.  I personally think it looks cool: it's straight out of Domus 1956.  Not cool is the fact that there is a large concrete fence around most of the museum.  It's not very friendly to many of its street faces.

Works, mostly: the windows.  Because a lot of natural light is not desired, Ponti only cuts the building here and there to let little slivers of views and light to enter the exhibition areas. Again, for this particular collection, the presence of a direct window out, as small as they are, works.  But barely: for painting collections, and many artifact collections, the windows are a curatorial problem.  But for many of the collection areas (see above) the connection to the outdoors, and particularly to views of the Rocky Mountains, is welcome and desired.  This museum is brilliant in its success in continually sequestering you for art viewing, and then giving you little moments of looking at outdoors which is totally not an art moment.  Art Mall Fatigue is not a problem in this museum, a strength not shared by almost every other museum I've been to.  Another powerful piece to this experience is that the main stairwell between floors is a concrete shaft with colored tiles.  Yet to get to this shaft you leave the museum, go into a small outdoor space, and then go into the stair.  The stair itself is rather brutal, but the experience of leaving the warm museum and going into the (usually) cold Colorado air is unique to most museum experiences.

Doesn't work: the materials and finishes.  The thing looks a tad dated.  The colored glass tiles on the exterior and in the stairwells scream 70s Italy, but I don't mind.  It's the dusty florescent lighting, some worn exhibition displays and carpeting, and a strangely mismatched furniture collection that needs some help.  

Doesn't work: the whole entry sequence.  There's a cute little stair/overlook thing going on connecting the first three floors, but it's accessed through an empty exhibition room which is around the corner from the main entrance.  Some of this is because the entry sequence has been reworked by the addition to this building.

Next we get to The Bower next door to The Castle, namely Daniel Libskind's addition.  It's a lot of shards thrown together and the interior is shards and angled walls.  You know the drill, no need to visit it really.  However Leibskind's building is easy to get to, works well with its surroundings, and looks great on the outside.  Inside, the spaces are a tad disorienting and at times annoying.  Even the signage is tilty.  RADICAL.  It is saved by a powerful installation of contemporary art, but that is more of a compensation than a utilization.  Ponti's windows are nothing short of subversive interruptions to the normally smooth consumption of art, and the technique is like an alternating current: on, then off, then on, then off.  Libskind's building seems to just be a crazy-space way of framing art consumption, and it feels flat.  It comes across like two people shouting at the same time.  It's not as satisfying a solution because it does not seem to offer anything to the art except a pain in the ass.

On the other hand, the two together work really well, and Libskind's addition of course must be seen in this context.  He's solved the biggest shortcoming of Ponti's museum: its presence in the city.  The DAM is now cool again, and it's because it's composed of two buildings by design powerhouses.

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