It's Set

The DAM's new Hamilton functions as a 3-D advertisement and as a museum.

The daring Frederic C. Hamilton Building created for the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind and the Davis Partnership became an instant Mile High landmark when it opened last week. The same thing happened 35 years ago when what is now called the North Building, by Gio Ponti and James Sudler, was finished. Together, the two prove that the DAM has a tradition of building works of art to house its works of art.

At a press preview held a week before the official Hamilton opening, the three key players in the project addressed the assembled media, starting with Frederic C. Hamilton, for whom the new building is named. Hamilton, whose fortune comes from oil and who's been on the board of trustees for thirty years, was extremely reserved, transferring all credit for the building's success to Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director since 1989. He's certainly right about that.

Sharp could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. He bubbled with excitement over the successful seven-year effort to bring the Hamilton from fantasy to completion. Sharp has handled the whole thing skillfully, relying on his wits, consummate professionalism and world-class charm to overcome every obstacle.

The El Pomar Grand Atrium in the DAM's new 
Frederic C. Hamilton Building.
The El Pomar Grand Atrium in the DAM's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

Libeskind, who took the dais last, was even more excited than Sharp. The Polish-born American architect was almost giddy as he anticipated the opening of his very first U.S. building -- and only the second major project he's completed anywhere. The first was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which established Libeskind as one of the most important architects in the world and paved the way for his Hamilton commission. One thing Libeskind noted as he was making his breathless remarks was how impressed he was with Denver's willingness to embrace cutting-edge concepts for the Hamilton. He likened it to the courage shown by the pioneers who first settled the city, which isn't a bad analogy.

As the Hamilton rose out of the ground, its position also rose -- directly to the top ranks of all Denver buildings. When it was in skeletal steel form, it looked like a gargantuan modernist sculpture that virtually matched in color and attitude "Lao Tzu," the magnificent Mark di Suvero in the middle of Acoma Plaza. The Hamilton is linear, with colliding trapezoidal boxes that run from north to south between Bannock Street and the Lanny and Sharon Martin Plaza, which is also the work of Libeskind and Davis.

The Hamilton's outlandish elements cantilever -- sometimes unnervingly -- over our heads and even over the street. This makes walking around the building something of a dramatic and vertiginous experience. (Speaking of vertigo, some visitors have lost their balance while touring the Hamilton because of its tilting walls.) Partly because of the dull gray color of the titanium panels that clad the building, and partly because of the crystalline composition, the Hamilton reminds me of a big piece of jewelry, like a giantess's brooch fallen to earth. Those who describe the building as looking like a wrecked spaceship are onto the same idea, essentially, since both agree that the Hamilton seems to have been dropped from above.

The central atrium is expressed on the exterior by a tilted box-like shape with large skylights and articulated diagonal beams. To the south is a one-story wedge-shaped wing, and beyond that a trapezoidal one. The largest part of the building lies to the north of the atrium block. This is a hulking and complicated set of forms done, like everything else, with straight lines. To the north and slightly west of that mass is the looming prow that extends over West 13th Avenue, pointing to and connecting metaphorically with the North Building.

Since the Hamilton is hemmed in by other buildings, including the Museum Residences, another Libeskind and Davis project, from a distance you can only get glimpses of the museum. This is a necessary shortcoming considering the cost of buying downtown land for a lawn. But the idea of hidden surprises around every corner is a Libeskind signature, and inside it is seen in spades.

It's hard to imagine the elaborately shaped Hamilton being designed or engineered without the use of computer programs. In fact, even the scaffolding was done with computers. However, it's important to remember that although computers free designers and engineers from the constraints of traditional structural forms and thus encourage expressiveness, the expressionist ethos goes way back to the nineteenth century. So Libeskind's design is a continuation of a long tradition, despite how unlikely the building's futuristic feel may make that seem.

The titanium panels stand in striking conceptual contradiction to the high-tech design because they were done by hand, like so much of the art inside. The panels were installed in overlapping parallel lines, with indentations perpendicular to their basic orientation placed every few feet. It reminds me of stitched, pleated linen, as if the Hamilton were upholstered in metal. By wrapping the various forms almost completely, Libeskind eliminated the differentiation between walls and roof, except at the very top of the building, where there's conventional roofing (although it's invisible from the Martin Plaza or the surrounding streets). The visual experience of the exterior is lively, to say the least. Its surface effects are spectacular, appearing in a range of silvery shades depending on the play of light and shadow across its many volumes. Radiating from the ground in a profusion of directions, its elaborate profile is set against the limitlessness of the sky.

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