Mind Over Matter

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

He became a U.S. citizen in 1965 before returning to Israel to study music. Libeskind then launched a music career in New York, but he eventually turned toward architecture, enrolling in New York's prestigious Cooper Union, where he graduated in 1970. He went on to graduate study in architectural history and theory at Essex University in England in 1972. From there he embarked on an academic career that occupied him for most of the next two decades.

Libeskind's academic work was concerned with theorizing about the nature of space, the use of metaphors and the choreography of people using the spaces. To illustrate these theories, he created drawings and models of his architectural concepts. But he never intended these things to be buildings. As an academic, he says, "I never designed hypothetical buildings" -- just concepts.

"All the buildings I have designed," he continues, "have been built or are being built." Libeskind describes his early efforts in theoretical architecture as "investigations used to gain different perspectives."

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

In the early 1980s, he finally became interested in designing buildings that would actually be constructed. He moved to Milan and opened his own office, Architectural Studio Daniel Libeskind. After receiving the commission for the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 1989, he moved his office to the German capital, where he still lives and works.

A characteristic of many of his designs is a zigzagging line; it can be seen in the Jewish Museum as well as in his preliminary conceptual proposal for the DAM wing, which was unveiled last month.

"I never saw the lines as zigzags -- or, as some would say, a lightning bolt -- but as a series of spaces. It is not an arbitrary form," he says. It might be formally linked to our nearby Rocky Mountains, which also have a jagged profile against the sky -- except that Libeskind says that it's not. But he does say the form of the proposed building is "connected to the topography."

The proposal for the DAM reveals a complicated set of spaces with a bifurcated formal scheme. From the north end of the lot, directly across from the existing museum, a series of low-slung, serpentine forms seems to descend into the ground toward the middle of the block. A second set of forms ascends to a low tower situated at the south end of the lot, away from the current museum.

In his concept, Libeskind would like the descending forms to be clad in native sandstone and the ascending forms covered in titanium panels like those used for Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, surely one of the most famous buildings in the world. Some naysayers are questioning the use of titanium since the material gets duller with age, just like the copper used at the Ritchie Center at the University of Denver. This should go without saying -- but apparently, it needs to be said nonetheless: Metal changes in appearance as it weathers and ages. This is not called a problem; it is called a patina. So pay no attention to the groundless grousers -- and bring on the titanium and copper.

In addition, the two sets of intersecting forms will enclose what Libeskind calls "a spectrum of spaces, with large spaces, and intimate spaces. There will be a variety of public spaces; there may be a restaurant and a shop. There will be places to look at the city and at the art."

The conceptual scheme, which will be repeatedly refined and finalized but not substantially changed, calls for a horizontally oriented structure. The mass of this structure will step back respectfully from the existing 1971 building, which was created by Italian modern master Gio Ponti with local architecture star James Sudler. The DAM's silvery-gray glass-tile clad tower, one of the city's most distinctive buildings, is Ponti's only built project in North America.

In discussing the visual -- though not physical -- connection of the new wing to the existing museum, Libeskind said at the public forum held at the DAM on August 16 that he wanted to "create a creative tension" between the new building and its older partner. The new building is conceived, according to Libeskind, to engage "the amazing building of the Denver Art Museum -- the Gio Ponti building, an immensely important building made in another time by an important architect."

It's safe to say that the Ponti building is a rare cultural asset that Denver is lucky to have; director Sharp has always regarded it this way and treated it as such. But the building's architectural quality has been openly questioned around here for some time, especially by those in the pseudo-intelligentsia of the local architectural scene -- in particular, that annoying new-urbanism crowd.

These self-styled critics looked at the stunning DAM tower and mocked it as some second-rate something or other -- which it isn't. But, hurray! They've now essentially been silenced, and most are apparently too embarrassed to be reminded of what they used to say, especially since their comments would directly contradict Libeskind. The critics are intimidated by him, as they should be.

Before he left town, Libeskind chose Denver's Davis Partnership as his local collaborator, and though the architect says that the two firms will be true partners, he also says that he's the one who will design the new museum. There are some major hurdles ahead, including vacating Acoma Street and getting permission to block the view corridor to the Civic Center, but the process is now fully under way.

"This is the best project I ever worked on," says Libeskind, "and I mean every word of it."

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