Art Review


Alone among American cities, Denver has a direct relationship with Italian modern master Gio Ponti: The 1971 Denver Art Museum is the architect's only building in North America. Most of Ponti's buildings, designed from the 1930s until his death in 1979, are in Italy.

How Ponti ended up doing a building in the Mile High City -- of all places -- was the result of the admiration for his work manifested by the Denver architect who became his collaborator in the DAM's design, the late James Sudler. But even before he met Ponti (roughly the Italian equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright), Sudler was already responding to the old master's work. In the tower portion of the 1965 United States Court House and Rodgers Federal Building complex in downtown Denver, Sudler was clearly influenced by Ponti's greatest masterpiece, the Pirelli Building in Milan, Italy, which was designed in 1956 and completed two years later.

Like the Pirelli, the tower is polygonal -- an iconoclastic act in the orthodox period of modern architecture. In addition, the penthouses, though handled differently in the two buildings, are similarly exaggerated and articulated.

I've made this comparison before, but not with the sense of overwhelming sadness that I feel now, after what happened to the Pirelli on April 18. As I watched the first live CNN shots from Milan of the damage caused by the small plane that hit the building, I literally cried -- which I also did after the recent destruction of two downtown Denver landmarks by Sudler (the once-accordion-like Columbine Building and the formerly disk-covered Daley Insurance Company), neither of which had been hit by an airplane.

If there's any bright spot, it's that the Pirelli Building appears to be reparable. Moreover, it's in Italy, a place that, unlike Denver, is renowned for its strict preservation laws. This makes it highly unlikely that such a world-famous modern masterpiece would be torn down. Let's hope not, anyway.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia