A Bold Move

Article excerpt


COLORADO HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN as a travel destination for sports enthusiasts-an outdoor paradise for skiing, cycling, white-water rafting, and hiking. But if the director of the Denver Art Museum, Lewis Sharp, is right, that perception could change soon. On October 7, the much-anticipated new addition to the museum, the Frederic C. Hamilton Building designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, opens to the public.

"A lot of people from the East and West Coasts come here for a mountain experience and don't even come into Denver. We wanted to create a signature building that would attract people to the city and make a bold statement," Sharp says. From the beginning, he envisioned a structure that would do for Denver what the Sydney Opera House has done for Sydney, Australia-put the city on everyone's "must see" list.

Denver mayor John Hickenlooper has similar high hopes. "When the Denver Art Museum's spectacular Hamilton Building opens this fall, it will dramatically enhance Denver's growing profile as an international cultural destination-yielding obvious economic benefits for our city and solidifying our reputation as the creative capital of the West," Hickenlooper says.

Anyone who has visited the Mile High City recently knows that Sharp and Hickenlooper may well realize their cultural dreams for Denver. The Libeskind design for the Hamilton Building, located in the heart of downtown, is a jaw-dropping configuration of geometric shapes and jagged angles that seems to explode from the ground like a volcano. The structure, clad in titanium, is already being referred to as a riot of rhomboids, an astonishingly beautiful explosion, and one of the most unique structures in the country.

The 146,000-square-foot addition almost doubles the size of the museum and makes it the largest art museum between Chicago and the West Coast. The space features three galleries for traveling exhibitions, art storage spaces, and new galleries for displaying selections from extensive permanent collections that include American Indian, Spanish Colonial, western American, pre-Columbian, Asian, Oceanic, African, and modern and contemporary art.

The $90.5 million expansion stands across the street from the museum's 1971 North Building designed by Gio Ponti. The seven-story North Building is also considered a bold statement, a 28-sided structure clad with a million or more shimmering gray tiles. As Paul Goldberger noted in a 2003 New Yorker profile of Libeskind, the architect wisely chose to do something completely different from Ponti's "modernist version of a medieval fortress," because it would have been nearly impossible to complement or design something compatible with that eccentric structure.

In some ways, the Hamilton Building is reminiscent of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain-both are dramatic, abstract in form, and sheathed in titanium. The comparison is no accident. Sharp attended the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997 and says he was "profoundly moved" by the space because it was as dramatic and compelling on the outside as the art it displayed inside. In 2000, when he and members of a search committee met to consider architects, it was agreed that the new museum building should offer the same outside/inside dynamism as Gehry's Guggenheim. In the New York-based architect Libeskind, they found the ideal collaborator, because he most closely listened to what the committee wanted and was able to knit it together with his own strong vision, Sharp says.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, visitors to the Hamilton building can expect an array of architectural treats to accompany their art-viewing experience. For starters, the entryway, an atrium, rises 120 feet high and features a winding staircase that leads to three floors with eye-popping exhibition spaces as well as a sculpture deck with magnificent views of the downtown skyline. …