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.

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.

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."

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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