Sprouting Up

Construction of the new DAM wing is about to begin.

That committee also included, in addition to Wilma, city council members Susan Barnes-Gelt and Polly Flobeck, Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton and museum donors such as Ginny Williams. The group traveled around the world looking at buildings by various architects, eventually announcing their selection of Berlin-based American architect Daniel Libeskind in 2000. At that time, Moulton and Williams smoked cigars and drank champagne as part of the giddy atmosphere surrounding the event. "Me and Jennifer will smoke cigars again when the building's finished," Williams promises.

At that time, Libeskind was better known as a theorist because he only had one major project under his belt, the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Now, having only recently scored the most important commission of our time, the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, Libeskind is unquestionably one of the key architects in the world -- adding interest and excitement for his Denver building. At the ceremony, Libeskind praised Denver, noting that it was a center of culture and a city of great beauty that is sometimes overlooked. "There's nothing more optimistic than building a building," he said. It's hard to disagree with him, especially in the case of the DAM's new building, which, when it's completed, will actually soar and figuratively look to the future.

Officially, Libeskind was charged with designing the DAM wing alone, but in 2001, a complex made up of the wing, a parking structure and a high-rise residential tower were unveiled. Sharp claims that these other components were actually designed and added after the wing was designed, but I doubt it. The wing simply doesn't make as much sense from an urban-design standpoint without the other two parts. The tower, in particular, spatially links the new wing to the existing Ponti museum and the Graves library through their similar heights and by defining a grand space between the three.

Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. 
Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum 
Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum expansion.

Now back to that measly $62.5 million that the DAM has to work with. Obviously, it's not enough money to pay for the whole complex. So how's it going to work? Well, here's what's happening: The tower is to be privately developed, and no public money is earmarked for its construction expenses. It won't cost the DAM one penny, but it will greatly enhance the setting of the wing. The parking structure, however, is a public project. But the DAM didn't have to use any of its precious bond money to pay for this project, either; Sharp convinced the city council to ante up for the Broadway structure because it will serve not only the DAM but also the DPL and the Colorado History Museum. This garage, which will be attached to the tower, is already open, though far from complete; retail stores surrounding the main core will be added later.

So despite the addition of two extra buildings to the Libeskind plan, none of the $62.5 million in bond money is being used for anything other than the DAM wing. That's good, because there's no money to spare; in fact, there's not enough money to build it. Sharp estimates that to cover the building in titanium panels, furnish it, provide programming and landscape the grounds, it will cost an extra $28 million dollars -- of which $8 million still needs to be raised. This is not as hard as it sounds, even in these tight economic times. Sharp's gotten some substantial support from the DAM's board of trustees, and there's no reason to believe he won't get even more.

Another additional cost outside the bond money is the endowment that's needed to maintain the building and carry its operational expenses. Sharp estimated at the time of the bond election that this endowment would have to be $50 million. Charlie Gallagher, a longtime DAM trustee and currently the board's vice chairman, announced at last week's ceremony that the trustees had responded not with $50 million, but with an endowment of $60 million. Gallagher also announced that a single donor, Frederic Hamilton, president of the Hamilton Companies and chairman of the board of trustees, had donated $20 million. This represents the largest private gift to any cultural institution in the history of Colorado. Gallagher also divulged perhaps the worst-kept secret in years -- it's been all but common knowledge for weeks -- that the new Libeskind-designed DAM wing would be called the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. There was sustained applause, and the black curtains behind the speakers were pulled open to reveal the presentation drawing of the new wing in its latest and surely final incarnation.

And, man, is the Frederic C. Hamilton Building going to be fabulous. The building will be a pile of colliding planes -- some covered in titanium, some made of glass -- with the clustered forms flying into the air at dramatic and often improbable angles.

These expressionist formal flourishes mean that there will be quite a bit of unusable space inside the new building, and that has engendered considerable criticism of the Libeskind design. But my response to those who think it will fail because it's not fully functional is that they should shut up, enjoy the ride and let the designers worry about how to carve up the interior. It's a rare thing anywhere in the world, let alone in Denver, to have a new building going up that promises to be a masterpiece. And that's exactly what Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building is going to be.

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