Amazing Grace

The DAM unveils the model for its new wing, while an exquisite textile show adorns the Stanton rooms.

Lewis Sharp, director of the Denver Art Museum, was in his typical ebullient mood when he addressed an assembled group of the media recently. The occasion was the unveiling of the model for the new wing being designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Berlin-based American architect who's one of the hottest contemporary architects on earth.

Sharp began by calling himself "the luckiest man in the world" -- a refrain he often repeats -- because he's getting the opportunity to work with Libeskind on an internationally significant building. But Sharp is wrong. We're the lucky ones. That's because it's our good fortune to have someone of Sharp's character, intelligence and skill at the helm of one of the most important cultural and architectural projects of our time. At every step of the way, he has acted with such brilliance and savoir faire that his approach should serve as a model for others involved in similar projects in which important institutions housed in significant buildings need to be expanded.

Let's look at the steps he took that have made the project exemplary.

Daniel Libeskind's model for the DAM expansion.
Daniel Libeskind's model for the DAM expansion.
A woman's robe made of silk and cotton, from 1850 to 1875.
A woman's robe made of silk and cotton, from 1850 to 1875.

The existing building (or "buildings," as Libeskind refers to them, since the tower is actually two joined structures) is a rare architectural gem. The gray-glass tile-clad building, completed in 1971, is the work of Italian modern master Gio Ponti, with on-site help from Denver's James Sudler. One of Ponti's largest commissions, it is his only building in North America. The DAM is the most substantial of a group of 1970s Ponti buildings to which it is stylistically related (the others are in Italy). These buildings represent Ponti's final mature design phase, expressed just before his death in 1978.

Right out of the chute -- actually, some years before there was a chute -- Sharp determined that any expansion would have to take this building into account. No architect, no matter how highfalutin, was even going be allowed to propose messing with it. This condition was laid out in the Request for Proposals that the DAM sent to interested architects. It means that the expansion, though a substantial one, won't affect the emblematic view of the Ponti building from 14th Avenue. The front of the building will be exactly the same when construction is completed as it is now. (The new wing will be located on the block south of the Ponti building, across West 13th Avenue, and will be subtly attached to the current museum via an elevated glass corridor attached at the second floor on the back side.)

Sharp's second smart move was to go for a superstar talent to design the new wing, thus guaranteeing it press and prestige. Libeskind was the unanimous choice in a couldn't-lose, closed competition; he beat out Thom Mayne of Los Angeles and Tokyo's Arata Isozaki.

Libeskind's model reveals the new wing as a visual tour de force that the architect himself describes as a "tectonic flower," made up of a cluster of spiky, angular forms that radiate up and out from around the main entrance. This entrance will be marked by a dramatic, atrium-like space in which a grand four-story staircase will be located. The building will be clad in gray granite -- "like the State Capitol Building," Libeskind noted -- and gray titanium panels. The titanium is the same material seen on the Guggenheim Bilbao, the standard by which all new museums are being measured today.

The use of gray makes a direct connection between the new building and the Ponti building. But as Libeskind pointed out, there will be more than just a superficial relationship; there is also a complicated formal dialogue. The theatrical roof of the Libeskind, for example, which he sees as the building's "fifth elevation," links up to the similar feature in the Ponti building. This is clearly revealed in the model: It is apparent that, when viewed from the high-rises to the north, the roofs of the seven-story Ponti and the four-story Libeskind will be visually connected.

Finally, Sharp's greatest triumph in all of this is that he has made program planning one of his last considerations. The ordinary practice in such situations is to hire some workman-like firm out of the Midwest and have it come up with a concept based solely on functional criteria. The results of this approach are typically insensitive, yet invariably become regarded as having been written in stone, a mindset that goes on to cripple the whole process. Had Sharp taken this well-trod path, it would have been guaranteed that the Ponti building would have been defaced and that the new one would have been a simple-minded shed. If architectural excellence doesn't come first, it winds up never coming in at all.

That's what's so great about Sharp: He did put architecture first. And believe me, we are the better -- and luckier -- for it.


Although specific programming decisions haven't been made concerning the new wing, some general ideas were identified from the start. One of these is that the new wing will house galleries dedicated to special exhibitions, the blockbuster shows -- many of them traveling -- that appear for limited runs.

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