When I woke up on the morning of March 3 and prepared to attend the unveiling of a design for a new downtown museum dedicated to abstract-expressionist genius Clyfford Still, my heart filled with dread. I really didn't want to see it, and had even less interest in meeting its designer, Brad Cloepfil (more on him in a minute). I assumed I was going to hate the proposed building because of my feelings about him.
As I drank my coffee, I watched 9News reporter Jamie Kim interview Cloepfil and gush about how beautiful the museum would be — without actually having seen the model or any drawings, since the design was still under cover and wouldn't be shown to anyone, even Kim, until later that day. The hair on the back of my neck was now on end, and my dread multiplied ten times. But I had a job to do.
The idea for the museum was announced in 2004 by Mayor John Hickenlooper, who revealed that Still's widow, Patricia, was giving the contents of Still's studio, which held over 90 percent of his artistic output over his entire career, or roughly 2,000 pieces, to the city of Denver. But the gift had strings. In exchange for the loot, the city had to agree to build a museum to display Still's work — and only his work. This was strange, because Still had no connection with Denver during his lifetime, so building a museum in his honor here had something of a London-Bridge-in-Lake-Havasu-City quality about it.
But Still's nephew, Curt Freed, does live here, and he's the one who sparked the project. Plus, the Denver Art Museum has been pursuing the hoard for more than a decade — way back to the days of the Wellington Webb administration.
Since the announcement, a director, Dean Sobel, who used to run the Aspen Art Museum, was hired, and a site was chosen for the building near the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street, on the same block as the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building. This will allow the Still museum to be connected to the Hamilton by a walkway. A committee then selected Cloepfil, of Portland's Allied Works Architects, to design the building. Like Still, Cloepfil had no previous association with Denver.
I have a bad impression of Cloepfil owing to the fact that he was on the wrong side of one of the most important preservation battles fought thus far in the 21st century: the effort to save 2 Columbus Circle in New York City. This important landmark from 1964 was designed by the great Edward Durell Stone, who was obviously anticipating postmodernism. It was originally constructed as the now-defunct Huntington Hartford Museum and was going to be used in the same way again, as the new Museum of Arts & Design. But Cloepfil wanted to completely rethink it and suggested stripping the building of its original details and covering it with an array of neo-modernist ornaments.
The effort to save 2 Columbus Circle became a worldwide movement as architectural and historic groups spoke out in favor of preserving it. But Cloepfil gave them no quarter. In a New York Times Magazine interview, for instance, he went as far as to decry the lack of sophistication on the part of the preservationists who didn't understand that he was saving the building even if it looked like he was destroying it.
True, it was the powers-that-be at the Museum of Arts & Design, which took over the building, who decided to destroy it, but Cloepfil is the one who took the job, making him a key villain in this story. Work on 2 Columbus Circle is going on right now.
Astoundingly, it was in the midst of this preservation controversy that Cloepfil was picked for the Still Museum. I was really disappointed, especially since he was up against some better picks — notably, Japan's SANAA, which has just completed the wildly praised New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Couldn't the committee have come up with an architect or firm that was not so controversial? Apparently not.
Now, back to the morning of the unveiling.
Luckily, I don't suffer from panic attacks and was breathing normally as I entered the DAM's Hamilton Building, where Cloepfil, Sobel, DAM director Lewis Sharp and many others had assembled. Cloepfil began the presentation with abstract drawings that looked a lot like Sean Scully compositions, but then he came to images of the renderings and plans for the Still Museum, and ultimately the model.
As I sat there, I couldn't believe what was happening. I found myself loving the building that Cloepfil had come up with — hardly faint praise coming from me. (Then again, he was starting with a blank slate rather than monkeying with a historic building.)
With Daniel Libeskind's flamboyant Hamilton occupying half of the block and Gio Ponti and James Sudler's spectacular North Building right across the street, Cloepfil decided not to compete visually with those architectural divas. Instead he proposed inserting a backup building that's very quiet, low in profile with only two stories, and subtle in its details. And if that weren't enough to make it thoroughly recessive in relation to its neighbors, it will be screened from the street by a veritable forest of trees. The trees will be part of a handsome entry plaza from which the now-unused west doors of the Hamilton may be accessed via a path.
Cloepfil has brought on landscape architecture firm Reed Hildebrand Associates of Boston to work out the details of the outdoor space.
Though Cloepfil has typically looked to late-twentieth-century modernism for inspiration — even working for a time with Mario Botta — his previous designs have varied widely. Whereas the Still Museum design is nothing like his Seattle Art Museum addition, from 2007, it's very similar to his Saint Louis Museum of Contemporary Art, from 2003. The Seattle project is appended to a Robert Venturi, and the St. Louis one is next to a Tadao Ando. It looks like Cloepfil's made a good part of his career building things next to the work of master architects, which is also what's happening here. (Too bad there wasn't a vacant lot next to 2 Columbus Circle.)
The Still Museum will be rectilinear, with a planar conception of enclosure and a constructivist arrangement of the volumes. Though the duality of the two levels is expressed on the exterior, in particular by the partly cantilevered upper level, both the compressed first floor and the bump-out skylights at the roofline add an ambiguity that suggests three floors.
The first floor will include a lobby, research facilities, offices and a uniquely open storage space with its contents visible to visitors through glass walls. The second floor, partly lit by natural light through windows and skylights with UV filtering mechanisms, will be almost entirely dedicated to exhibition spaces. Some of these galleries will have high ceilings, while others will have low ones, reflecting the different sizes of Still's works, which range from mural-sized canvases to small drawings.
There will be a deeply recessed entry with glass doors in a glass wall facing north and fronting West 13th Avenue. The building will be made of cast aggregate, the specific texture of which has yet to be determined. Cloepfil has said he will experiment on the specific nature of that aggregate, and he mentioned mixing reflective materials like quartz, granite or even bits of stainless steel with the concrete. The idea is that the materials will glisten in the sun. Cloepfil is also experimenting with articulations in the surfaces of the walls, which will likewise be used to catch ambient light.
Though I know a lot of people are underwhelmed by the Still Museum — a friend of mine says it looks like a 1970s dentist's office building — I think it will be very elegant. I still hate what Cloepfil did at 2 Columbus Circle and wish someone else had been tapped for the Still Museum, but I just can't deny how good his ideas are in this case, and I'm confident it will be a great addition to Denver's greater Civic Center area.
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