Get Ready

The DAM unveils its spectacular new Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

It's been more than seven years in the making, and for the last three, it's been slowly rising on a site just south of the intersection of West 13th Avenue and Acoma Plaza. You'd have to have been living under a rock -- or way out in the suburbs -- not to have noticed the strange and iconic building that's both shocking and striking in its form and materials.

Of course, I'm talking about the Denver Art Museum's shimmering Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which was designed by New York architect Daniel Libeskind in conjunction with Denver's Davis Partnership. The new building is so unusual and eye-catching that it's bound to become a nationally recognized symbol of Denver.

A lot about the Hamilton is brilliant, but perhaps its biggest plus is the fact that the wing is freestanding and thus doesn't interfere with the DAM's legendary Gio Ponti-designed (with help from the late James Sudler) building, which is equally iconic. Though the two structures are clearly different conceptually and stylistically, they do relate to one another in many ways. They share a planar approach to enclosure, with each featuring a multiplicity of walls defining the spaces within. Neither is rectilinear, and thus each ignores the time-tested format seen in most buildings. The exteriors of both have a luxurious feeling owing to deluxe finishes, with the titanium panels of the Hamilton perfectly countering the glass tiles covering Ponti's North Building. They have a similar palette, with both done in complementary shades of silvery gray. And although Libeskind cuts the skin of his building with only a few windows or other openings, their shapes recall the slit windows and doors that play a big role in the Ponti.

Daniel Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building for 
the Denver Art Museum.
Daniel Libeskind's Frederic C. Hamilton Building for the Denver Art Museum.

The Libeskind and the Ponti are connected by the enclosed glass-and-steel Reiman Bridge that leads visitors through the Duncan Pavilion, which is in a separate building sited between the two wings. This building was originally done by Burnham Hoyt, but it's been redesigned repeatedly, most recently by the Davis Partnership.

The idea for expanding the DAM came to Lewis Sharp as he took over the museum's directorship in January 1989. But with the bad economic times and Denver in the depths of the oil bust, any new construction was out of the question. Instead, museum donor Rex Morgan went to the Denver City Council and asked that they free up $8 million they had okayed for the DAM years before but had never used. In the interim, the sum had grown to $9 million with interest, and Sharp used the money for a major renovation of the old Bach wing just in time for the DAM's 100th birthday, in 1993. (The museum traces its history back to the Artists' Club that launched its first series of art shows in 1893.) Then Sharp oversaw a major renovation of the upper floors in 1997.

In 1999, the time seemed right to start thinking about a proper addition. With hat in hand, Sharp went to then-mayor Wellington Webb and asked him to support a $63.5 million bond initiative. Webb shaved a million off the top, reducing the bond to $62.5 million, and Denver voters passed it by a landslide that same year.

I wasn't surprised by the election's happy outcome, because Sharp had shrewdly laid out his case during the preceding years. All through the late 1990s, he filled the museum with back-to-back special exhibits that focused on famous artists such as the impressionists and Old Masters, bringing throngs of people through the doors. He proved by example that the place was too small.

After the bond passed, an architect-selection committee was formed, which was chaired by the late Jennifer Moulton, who was the city's head of planning. A host of world-class players wound up on the short list of possible architects -- again through Sharp's cleverness. You see, all five semi-finalists were suggested to the committee by the DAM's board of trustees, which had come up with their names under Sharp's guidance. In 2000, the committee chose the up-and-coming Daniel Libeskind for the job. He was the darling of vanguard architecture at the time, based on his theatrical design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which had opened in 1999. It's interesting, considering how mega-famous Libeskind is now, that the Jewish Museum was his first major commission anywhere and the Hamilton is his first completed building in the United States.

It's easy to stylistically link Libeskind's oeuvre with that of Peter Eisenman, the dean of deconstruction, and Frank Gehry, the king of contemporary expressionism. Libeskind's brand of expressionism, however, also relates to history, and his approach is a direct descendant of the mid-twentieth-century taste for sculptural forms.

Libeskind's preference for the formal complexity of expressionism reflects the twists and turns of his own biography. Born in war-torn Poland in 1946 to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust, Libeskind moved with his family to Israel while he was still a baby. In 1960, when he was fourteen, his parents immigrated to New York City. He became a U.S. citizen in 1965, then left for Israel to study music, then returned to New York to launch his musical career. Soon after his return, however, he became interested in architecture and enrolled at the prestigious Cooper Union. He graduated in 1970 and went on to do graduate work at the University of Essex in England in 1972.

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