From the New York Times
A Razor-Sharp Profile Cuts Into a Mile-High Cityscape
Denver Art Museum anchors a new cultural district for the city.
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
Published: October 12, 2006
DENVER — For those who admired Daniel Libeskind’s early work, his recent trajectory has been painful to watch. After soaring to stardom in 1999 with the evocative zigzagging form of his Jewish Museum in Berlin, he has suffered humiliation in his role as master planner at ground zero, not so much for his design as his consistent refusal to stand up for it. And his worst buildings, like a 2002 war museum in England suggesting the shards of a fractured globe, can seem like a caricature of his own aesthetic.
The new addition to the Denver Art Museum captures all of the contradictions within Mr. Libeskind’s oeuvre. Its bold, often mesmerizing forms reaffirm the originality of his talent, yet its tortured geometries make it a daunting place to install or view art — hardly a minor drawback. And for all its emotional power, the building seems eerily out of date, and its flaws readily apparent.
The centerpiece of the city’s new cultural district, the museum is composed as a series of interlocking rectangles evoking a pile of boxes tumbling across the site. The entrance faces a new plaza dotted with trees that links the Civic Center with the Golden Triangle, a neighborhood of once-dilapidated boarding houses that developers are transforming into a hip neighborhood for young urbanites.
The new plaza is a well-worn formula: museums, shops and a loftlike apartment complex, also designed by Mr. Libeskind, that are intended to manufacture an instantly vibrant street life. Civic leaders promise that it will help revitalize downtown Denver. (The museum opened on Oct. 7.)
Within this context the museum can be magical. In its most striking feature, a triangular form at one corner shoots out over a street toward the old Gio Ponti museum building. A bridge connects the two buildings just underneath. Other forms tumble out toward the plaza, partly sheltering the entrance. Yet the genius of the exterior lies in how its appearance changes when viewed from varying directions. Fragments of the cantilevered beak-like form can be gleaned between towering downtown buildings; from other angles the structure seems static and bunkerlike. At night the building tends to flatten out, giving it a strange stillness.
Mr. Libeskind pulls some of that energy right up through the building. Visitors enter the galleries by ascending a staircase that spirals up through a four-story atrium lobby. As you climb, the staircase gets tighter, more intimate. Slivers of daylight enter through slotlike skylights set where the walls intersect, so that at times the building looks as if it were pulling apart at the seams. Farther up, beams crisscross the space as if to prevent the walls from falling in on you.
The intersecting geometries yield the sort of wonderfully odd, leftover spaces typical of an attic, and Mr. Libeskind takes advantage of this by setting up small sitting areas within some of them.
Resting on a sofa, you may catch a glimpse of a silhouetted figure wandering up the staircase several levels above. At other times the experience can be like entering the jarring, riotous forms of an Expressionist canvas by Max Beckman.
Yet this is a place for viewing real works of art. And if criticizing contemporary architects for creating flamboyant museums that mistreat the art they house has become a tiresome pastime, it is overwhelmingly justified here. In a building of canted walls and asymmetrical rooms — tortured geometries generated purely by formal considerations — it is virtually impossible to enjoy the art.
The curators have made a valiant effort. Some of the sculpture, for example, looks terrific here. Antony Gormely’s 2000 “Quantum Cloud XXXIII,” an anonymous figure fashioned from stainless steel rods, seems to splinter off into space, as if the entire building were floating in pieces around it. But paintings by Degas and Pissarro look absolutely lost in the chaos of the surroundings. A row of Campbell’s soup can paintings by Warhol hangs on one side of a column, as if the curators had given up trying to find a suitable spot for them.
Just as disconcerting is how dated the building looks. Its titanium cladding, whether a respectful homage or a tired appropriation of the famous skin used for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, looks oddly familiar. And more generally, it can remind you of Mr. Libeskind’s geometries in earlier projects: the boxlike tumbling forms of an unbuilt addition for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the skewed cantilevered shapes of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It’s as if you’ve seen the same building again and again. And unlike, say, Mr. Gehry’s best work, the structures often seem shaped entirely by their own internal logic; their relation to their function and the buildings around them seems strained or artificial.
This problem may be related to the arc of Mr. Libeskind’s career. Many of his contemporaries spent the first phase of their professional lives in a desperate struggle to build, laboring night and day as unknowns, churning out design after design that went nowhere. But in the process they built up a storehouse of ideas they could draw on when they finally made a name for themselves and commissions began to pour in.
Mr. Libeskind spent the first decade or more of his career as an academic. By the time his Berlin museum was completed, he was 54 and had spent an entire decade pouring his heart into a single building that remains his greatest architectural achievement. His newfound celebrity resulted in a torrent of commissions, yet it seems as though he is struggling to expand on that earlier language, as if his stardom has not allowed him the time or space to explore new strains in his work.
The residential and retail complex he designed across the plaza from the museum looks like a cheap knockoff of his own building. Wrapping around two sides of a five-story parking structure, it lacks compositional rigor.
Oddly shaped forms are grafted onto the facades with no apparent rhyme or reason. A gridlike facade of crisscrossing mullions looks cheap and overwrought. And the interiors are blandly conventional except for the random positioning of some windows, which do make for some strange views.
You can’t help wondering what all this bodes for Mr. Libeskind’s future. He is building a German military history museum in Dresden and a performing arts center in Dublin; he is at work on more than two dozen residential and office towers in cities like Milan, Singapore, Toronto and Sacramento, Calif. Some of these clients are serious about producing quality architecture; others are probably in it for the Libeskind name.
But for any architect the proof is in the work, and Denver is a maddening bundle. At turns enchanting, predictable and irritating, it is uncompromising in all the wrong ways.