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ART — Orthogonal Paradigm

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

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Mile-High Design

Map of downtown highlighting the Pedestrian Mall, the Capitol, and DenverArt Museum

Recently on a road trip out west, I found myself in Denver, Colorado.  Historically known as a gold-rush town of the 1850s and for the towering Rocky Mountains, Denver is now making its mark in the art and culture world.

Alone on this road trip, I walked through the city and observed.  The people are very active and the downtown area is alive with movement.  The 16th Street Mall, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is a mile-long pedestrian street that connects the Civic Plaza to Union Station via the trendy “LoDo” (lower downtown) district.  This mall, cutting right through the heart of the downtown business district, creates a dynamic place to walk, skateboard, bicycle, eat, shop, or just sit and observe.

The streets are pristine.  Flowering plants and lush trees line the brick-paved streets.  There are musicians – harpists, guitarists.  There are Green Peace folks trying to get the word out about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in American food.  People are catching the free (and on-time) shuttle.  I walked the mall down one side, past Union Station and to the South Platte River, turned around and walked up the other side and took the bus back to the majestic capitol building.

Colorado's State Capitol

Home of Colorado’s Legislature, the capitol building in Denver is breathtaking.  It’s grandeur is matched only by the U.S. capitol building in D.C., from which it’s 1890 design gained inspiration.  The building is composed of Colorado white granite and the large bell-shaped dome is plated with 24-karat gold.

Past the Civic plazas and Greek Amphitheatre lined with Doric columns and marble sculptures, I find the arts district: The Colorado History Museum, The Children’s Museum of Denver, the controversial Denver Public Library (designed by architect Michael Graves), the Museum of Contemporary Art, and most notably, the Denver Art Museum.

Frederic C. Hamilton Building Addition to the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum has been in the news recently due to the opening of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by German architect Daniel Libeskind.  The sharp, angular mass of titanium panels (9,000 to be exact) towered over me as I walked under the enormous point that cantilevers over the street, seemingly daring the adjacent building to touch it. The 146,000sf building with 55,000sf of display space opened in fall of 2006, so I inquired about the construction team’s presence.  Apparently there was a leak.

While I understand the draw of the worldwide visionary’s work, I can’t help but view this Denver Art Museum addition as a mechanical parasite feeding off the original building.  In fact, as I rounded the corner after my encounter with the giant point, I caught a glimpse of the original building, now eclipsed by this sci-fi appendage.

Interior of Hamilton Building (L), "Quantum Cloud XXXIII" by Antony Gromely (C), Interior Hamilton Building (R).

The North Building by Italian architect Gio Ponti

As I walked towards the original part of the museum and away from Libeskind’s ogre, a much more innovative and endearing building emerged – the North Building.  Designed in the 1970s by Italian-architect Gio Ponti (1891-1979), the North Building (as it’s now known) was a true work of art.

Though Ponti is popular in Europe, he isn’t well-known in America, primarily because the Denver Art Museum remains his only public building on this continent.  Ponti was a true artist who not only designed buildings, but also flatware, furniture, theater costumes, and even designed the interior of an ocean liner.

Approaching the building, images of the Tower of London are conjured, as this castle-like fortress looms over a landscaped moat below.  The towers are surfaced with a combination of flat and pyramid-shaped tiles, which reflect sunlight and create interesting patterns.  Over 1 million of these tiles were manufactured by Corning Glass Works for the towers, and it took workers two years to set them by hand.  At the building’s ‘crown,’ shapes are cut out to frame certain views of Denver’s many landmarks.

Close-up of the hand-set Corning Glass tiles

The meticulously-punched openings in the façade orchestrate light patterns inside, which remind me of LeCorbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, where interiorly, the light becomes the architecture, rather than the building’s form.

As a functional museum, the layout is straightforward and easy to navigate (which, as a navigationally-challenged person, is very important to me – - having been lost and turned around in Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin for hours, which is another story altogether…).

The collections and exhibits include pre-Columbian, African, Asian, Oceanic, European and American work, as well as one of the largest collections of American Indian art and artifacts.  And of course, modern art, housed largely in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

All in all, Denver took me by surprise.  I’ve been to the “Gateway to the West” before, but that was about 18 years ago for a school competition.  And then, I only visited the U.S. Mint and the capitol building.   The cleanliness of the city, the friendliness of the people, and its new and growing arts and entertainment district make the Mile-High City a must-see for designers, art-enthusiasts or folks who just love to experience a lively downtown area.

Sources:

Denver Art Museum, Scala Publishers, 2006.

Downtown Denver

Mile High City

Denver Art Museum