Mind Over Matter

Daniel Libeskind muses over the first new museum building of the 21st century.

It's hard to believe that it was only last November that the city's voters gave the Denver Art Museum the go-ahead to construct a badly needed new wing by selling $62.5 million in bonds. And although there have been no physical changes on the southeast corner of West 13th Avenue and Acoma Street, the site chosen for the new structure, a lot has happened in the realm of ideas.

Once the money for the construction was approved, a process was initiated to choose an architect. But even before the City Selection Committee members were appointed by Mayor Wellington Webb, there was a pre-existing condition stipulated by the DAM: The new building had to be a significant one. Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director, had been clear on that point. The new wing must be a work of world class architecture, and it must be the work of a world-class designer.

Sharp had pushed the same agenda a decade ago when the museum played a key role in the selection of an architect for the new Denver Public Library, right across Acoma Plaza.

The conceptual model of the new wing at the Denver Art Museum.
The conceptual model of the new wing at the Denver Art Museum.

At the time, the DPL envisioned a square and windowless structure to be constructed on the scraped site of the old 1950s Burnham Hoyt library building. But then-mayor Federico Peña -- smelling trouble for the upcoming bond initiative -- stepped in, demanding the preservation of the Hoyt library and initiating an international architectural competition. City Librarian Rick Ashton may be proud of the building that was actually built and may even take full credit for its construction, but it's not at all what he had in mind to begin with. No, most of the credit for the success at the DPL goes to the DAM.

That's because Sharp, along with DAM Architecture, Design and Graphics department head Craig Miller helped tilt the process toward architectural excellence. Miller, in particular, was instrumental in the ultimate selection of Michael Graves for the DPL wing because he had called him and urged him to enter the contest -- as he had many of the other famous architects who entered the DPL competition.

In a sense, then, the DPL process was a dress rehearsal for what's been happening at the DAM over the last few months.

Superficially, the DAM lost control of the process when the City Selection Committee was seated. Chaired by the city's planning agency head, Jennifer Moulton, the committee became the sole entity charged with the responsibility of choosing the architect. But the DAM had built in a fail-safe mechanism that allowed it to maintain control by proxy -- sort of: the rich, powerful and politically well-connected folks that serve on the museum's board of trustees.

The interest of the trustees is more than a casual one. They have pledged more than $50 million to pay for programming in the new building, and therefore have a genuine proprietary stake. And they made their influence known almost immediately.

Of the eighteen architects who were considered by the City Selection Committee, ten originated on a list compiled by the trustees, who drew it up with the help of Sharp, Miller and Dianne Vanderlip, the head curator of the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department. Even more telling is the fact that the five semi-finalists announced last spring -- Steven Holl, Robert Venturi, Arata Isozaki, Thom Mayne and the ultimate winner, Daniel Libeskind -- were all taken off that short list. More telling still is that the final unanimous decision by the City Selection Committee to hire Libeskind was made shortly after the trustees had unanimously recommended him. What a striking coincidence.

Trustee Ginny Williams, the wealthy heiress, art collector and DAM patron, who acted as an ad hoc liaison between the museum's board and the City Selection Committee, lobbied heavily for Libeskind. "He was my first choice all along," she crowed immediately after the announcement. "I convinced them!"

There's no question that Libeskind was a good choice -- any of the finalists would have been -- but only because Sharp set up a process that precluded failure.

Libeskind was a courageous choice as well, since his career has been so brief. His entire reputation is based on a single building, one of only a handful by him that have been completed. That building, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, opened -- sans exhibits -- in January 1999. It is radical in its design, which is characterized by a theatrical orchestration of interlocking and overlapping planes, and as could be expected of such a dramatic-looking building, it immediately became famous. Photos appeared in architectural periodicals and, soon after, in general-interest magazines around the world.

But though Libeskind is relatively new to actual buildings, he's an old hand in the field of architecture. His former specialty was architectural theory, which he expressed in the world of academia.

And Libeskind's theories and concepts are grounded in his own life story, which is as elaborate and convoluted as his architecture.

Born in war-ravaged Poland in 1946 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Libeskind moved with his family to Israel when he was still a baby. Though the Libeskinds immigrated to the United States when the future architect was fourteen, he still retains his distinctive and charming Israeli accent. "In Israel they say I have a Polish accent," says Libeskind with a ready laugh.

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