A Civic Act

Daniel Libeskind parlayed his high-profile addition to the Denver Art Museum into a commission for neighboring condominiums—and created a successful urban space in the process.

On a clear day last summer Daniel Libeskind was in Denver, where he could barely contain himself as he gushed, in rapid-fire sequence, about the museum and condominium buildings that were rising around him. His jubilance, this time, seemed justified. He was 1,600 miles from New York and the fiasco that became of his Ground Zero master plan, and he was luxuriating in the calm of less hostile territory. “I love Denver, I truly do, and not because they gave me a chance to build these buildings,” he said, arcing his hand from the titanium-clad wedges of the Denver Art Museum addition to the Museum Residences, as the condos are called. “I just love the forward-looking spirit that people have here,” he continued. “It’s not like New York.”

But Libeskind can’t get a break. As soon as his Denver Art Museum expansion was unveiled last October, the critics began their onslaught. In the New York Times Nicolai Ouroussoff declared it “eerily out of date, and its flaws readily apparent.” Blair Kamin, of the Chicago Tribune, called it “disappointingly spotty.” All of which prompted a Denver Post reporter to wonder if “the mixed—and often sharply critical—reviews of the new [building] from some of the nation’s top architecture critics will discourage people from visiting Denver.”

But what has been largely lost in these early accounts of Libeskind’s project is that it is not just another post-Bilbao cultural showpiece—though showpiece it is—designed to at­tract tourists and their pocketbooks. For one thing, it can be seen as a fitting response to its context; for another, it creates a context all its own. Flanking a new outdoor plaza with the museum and condominiums, Libeskind has tapped two of the most interminably hyped trends of recent years—the museum as spectacle and the designer condominium—to create a winning urban space.

Linking two city districts, Libeskind’s block-long complex completes a pedestrian corridor that begins at Denver’s Beaux Arts Civic Center. Passing between the museum’s original building, a 1971 edifice by Italian master Gio Ponti, and Michael Graves’s Post-Modern Denver Public Library, the thoroughfare terminates with Libeskind’s plaza as a gateway to the gentrifying Golden Triangle neighborhood. On the plaza’s eastern edge, the Museum Residences form an L-shaped mid-rise that clings to two sides of a new five-level parking garage. Across the plaza is the new museum addition, the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Crystalline in form with a shimmering skin, it is undeniably spectacular—a 146,000-square-foot eruption of jagged peaks and soaring prows that beg the inevitable comparison to the Rockies beyond.

So why all the criticism? Few question the building’s theatrical exuberance or its ability to vigorously weave together its surroundings. Still, Libeskind bashing is rather fashionable these days, and while it can be unfair at times, it comes with good reason. Having established himself as an architect of formidable intellect, Libeskind has in recent years unraveled into something resembling kitsch. In Seoul, for example, his facade for the Hyundai headquarters building is emblazoned with a neo-Constructivist pattern that winds up looking like a giant smiley face. Then there’s the patriotic hooey—the 1,776-foot height and “Statue of Liberty” antenna—with which he sugarcoated his ill-fated Freedom Tower proposal for Ground Zero, in New York. What’s more, the crystal-like shards and prisms that have become Libeskind’s signature forms have devolved into a rhetorical catchall. At his Imperial War Museum, in Manchester, England, he has said they represent conflict and upheaval; at a student center in London, they instead express urban vitality. Equally suspicious was his explanation when asked about the inconsistencies: “All architecture is crystalline,” he proclaimed.

But one could argue that Libeskind’s forms, as preordained as they may seem, have found a suitable home in Denver. Ponti’s building, a gray glass-tiled fortress, was not an easy one to add onto. So rather than defer to it, Libeskind’s addition offers itself as a foil. The Rocky Mountain comparisons aside, it is a dialectical explosion of Ponti’s hermetic box—a bold and unruly alter ego for the latter’s brooding sobriety that, in a nod to populism, shatters the notion of art as an insular pursuit. Even its gashlike streaks of fenestration—another Libes­kind cliché—make sense here, echoing the arrow-slit windows of Ponti’s earlier building. And though Ouroussoff has chided Libeskind’s titanium skin as an outdated reprise of Frank Gehry’s Gug­genheim Bilbao, it’s worth noting that titanium is indigenous to Colorado, not Bilbao: the material for both came from the same Denver-based mining company. “Libes­kind’s titan­ium against Ponti’s glass tile—they read beautifully together,” museum director Lewis Sharp adds. “There are many common threads between the two buildings, which I think complement each other both visually and intellectually.”

The bad press has been directed overwhelmingly at the museum addition’s interior. Critics have predictably decried its sloping walls and irregularly shaped galleries as hopeless settings for art—and from a conventional standpoint, they are probably right. But it is easy to forget that function, like art, is largely a subjective matter. The museum has relied on Daniel Kohl, its exhibitions designer, to make sense of these awkward spaces—and he has done a skillful job, unleashing the potential of Libeskind’s riotous volumes both to animate and amplify the objects within. “The ‘wow’ is not just in the appearance of the building, but in people’s experience of the collection,” Libeskind says of the vertiginous setting.

Of course, housing art was only one imperative. Libeskind’s addition was not just a means of raising the profile of an institution that had outgrown its home, but—funded by $62.5 million in public bonds and $28 million in private money—it serves a civic purpose as well. “We wanted to build something that would in one brushstroke demonstrate where the city has been, but also where it’s going,” says Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was part of the 11-member committee that unanimously selected Libeskind.

Hickenlooper adds that more than mere symbolism is at stake. “I look at [the museum addition] as part of the quality of life of our citizens,” he says. “An awful lot of people, especially young people, are spending most of their time watching TV and playing video games. We can’t legislate against that, but what we can do is create much more powerful cultural attractions to compete with it.”

By parlaying his museum into a residential complex, Libeskind created more than a cultural attraction. He carved out a public space that just might tempt people off their couches. Paved in gray and red granite, and lined with honey locust trees, his new 75,000-square-foot plaza arose from a rather prosaic city directive: the museum had to find a way to replace and augment the number of parking spaces that would be lost to its new addition, which was built on a parking lot on city-owned land.

Because an above-grade garage was the only option—an underground structure would have been prohibitively expensive—Libeskind thought to mask it with new development. “I suggested—it was just a piece of imaginative thinking—that you don’t have to expose the garage,” he recalls. “You create housing, you create a piazza, towers—really a new urban center for the arts. And lucky for me, everyone said, ‘Yes, this is a good idea.’” (There is, however, some confusion as to whose idea it really was. Sharp credits Jennifer Moulton, the city planning director who died in 2003, though he acknowledges that Libeskind’s claim may not be off base. “We were all spending a lot of time together,” he says.)

A private joint venture between Corporex Colorado and Denver’s Mile High Development was eventually formed to build the Museum Residences. Its 55 units, surrounding the new garage—and priced between $340,000 and $1.2 million—were more than 80 percent sold before construction was finished. Libeskind’s celebrity was a selling point, as was his museum: the units facing it were snatched up quicker than those with the usually coveted views of the city’s natural backdrop. “His competition is the Rocky Mountains,” says George Thorn, Mile High’s president and founder. “And he’s done better than the Creator.”

From the outside, the condominiums nevertheless seem mired in the kinds of superficial gestures for which Libeskind has lately been criticized. Their canted walls and angle-ridden facades feel fussy and decorative. But their success lies in their relationship to Libeskind’s museum addition, which could easily have turned into a fetishistic object—dazzling from afar but alienating as you get closer. The condominiums have oriented it toward the plaza that has materialized in between—an outdoor space that, pierced by Libeskind’s angles, is dynamic in form, human in scale, and urban in character.

It’s too early to tell if the plaza will be successful in drawing and sustaining crowds. With construction work ongoing, much of it was left fenced off through the fall, and Denver’s stormy winter did little to encourage outdoor fraternizing. But the early prognosis is good. “The plaza creates a very strong sense of place,” says John Desmond, of the Downtown Denver Part­ner­ship, a non­profit advocacy group. Others seem to agree. A café has al­ready opened on the condominiums’ ground floor, and an annex of the Mizel Museum, a local institution of Judaica and tolerance, has signed on to do the same. Around the remaining two sides of the parking garage, a hotel and additional apartment tower, both designed by Libeskind, will likely begin construction this year; and the Clyfford Still Museum, designed by Allied Works Archi­tecture, of Portland, Oregon, is forthcoming on the same block. “I think the plaza is one of the most successful aspects of the whole complex,” says Mary Voelz Chandler, art and architecture critic of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News. “Even people who don’t particularly care for the museum building seem to appreciate that it has met its goal, which was to tie everything else together.”

But Libeskind may have finally pushed Denver’s forward-looking spirit a bit too far. Responding to a city-organized effort to revive the languishing Civic Center, the nonprofit Civic Center Conserv­ancy commissioned him to propose a plan for the park that was unveiled last August. Featuring, among other things, a dramatic pedestrian bridge and a 72-foot-tall light-and-water element, it drew the ire of critics who saw it as an assault on the building’s neoclassical dignity. At press time, the pitch ap­peared all but dead.

Indeed, Libeskind seems to have found the limit to his ambition in Denver. But his museum, along with the complex it anchors, is no meager achievement: it is a catalyst whose imprint extends well beyond its walls. “It’s not just about a museum as a stand-alone building,” the architect says. “Much more important is integrating this object so it’s part of a community.” Or perhaps using it to create one.

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