It's Set

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.

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.  

But once inside, the mood and attitude changes dramatically. The walls and ceilings confine and define the interior space, and tame them to some extent. Whereas the outside is pure showmanship, demanding the attention of passersby, the inside is very quiet, modestly finished and appointed, and supremely restrained -- even if the walls cant this way or that.

The inside finishing is fairly informal and rather rough in places. It makes me think of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's famous dictum that "God is in the details" -- and made me realize that Libeskind is an atheist when it comes to that particular faith. He is clearly more interested in hacking out spaces than he is in tailoring them. The walls, floors and ceilings were carried out in ordinary materials with a minimum of detailing.

The floors of the lobby space are covered in rough-finished charcoal-colored granite, with the rectangular pieces arranged in a diagonal all-over pattern. The walls are mostly done in drywall painted a bright wintry white, but there are also a number of horizontally linked windows -- more than anywhere else in the building -- and a west-facing entrance. I think this secondary entrance will one day connect to the not-yet-designed Clyfford Still Museum, which will be built on a site right next to the Hamilton.

To the left is the opening of the El Pomar Grand Atrium, the chief interior space in the building. The atrium's spine is a fairly steep staircase that rises up through the building with large lobby landings on the second, third and fourth levels. The treads of the stairs and the floors of the landings are covered in the same charcoal-colored granite seen in the main lobby. The railings are made of simple, widely spaced balusters carrying a minimalist banister, both elements done in smart-looking brushed stainless steel. The walls, and the boxed-in structural elements that create the atrium's spaces, are in drywall painted the same crisp white as the lobby. The atrium has linear skylights in various places, which turn the different walls into a range of off-white colors.

Since, like everything else, the atrium has its own special axis that cuts away at a diagonal, visitors will not be able to see it in its entirety when they first enter. The character of the atrium slowly reveals itself as we climb the stairs, with the space opening up wider in places and narrowing in others as the space rises to the highest point of the roof. Again, it's an illustration of Libeskind's favored element of surprise.

Back on the main level, opposite the atrium, is a large, swank gift shop. Beyond that is the most conventional of the temporary exhibit spaces, the Gallagher Family Gallery. The other two special-exhibition galleries, the Martin & McCormick and the Anschutz, are located on the second level. This level also features permanent galleries devoted to Western art, which are bisected by the main corridor. That passageway leads straight to the Reiman Bridge, which connects the Hamilton to the Duncan Pavilion and, beyond that, the North Building.

The third and fourth levels are almost completely given over to the Bonfils Stanton Gallery, which is the new home of modern and contemporary art. Off the third level is a sculpture deck, an outdoor patio accessed through the Logan Atrium, a two-story space connected by a staircase. The third level also hosts a small gallery of Oceanic art; on the fourth is a similar space for African art.

The Hamilton's layout is so complicated that it's going to take repeated visits to fully familiarize ourselves with how the building works. Using the atrium's staircase may make the most sense at first, because you can begin to comprehend how the various spaces connect to one another, which is more obtuse if you use the elevators.

At first the Hamilton may appear to be a cipher for museum-goers, but eventually, at least for DAM regulars, it will start to reveal itself. After my third time, it actually felt familiar, and I'm sure other repeat visitors will have the same response. But my best advice to everyone -- and I mean it -- is to try not to fall over while getting to know it.

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