The unifying redesign of a building that divides


The Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum has been divisive, if not hard to love, since it opened 50 years ago this month. Now, a major project has unified the museum’s architecturally diverse campus and perhaps even made the seven-story tower adorable.

Designed by Gio Ponti (1891-1979), the Italian architect and industrial designer, and James Sudler Associates, based in Denver, the Martin Building is a stern high-rise citadel, its cliff walls with windows so narrow they seem made to shoot arrows through them. Once unveiled, it baffled visitors with the contrast between its fortress character and the glittering glass pane of its walls – “an Italian castle wrapped in tin foil”, as a wag called it.

Roof terrace of the Martin building


Denver Art Museum

But when the time came to renovate the aging building, its stewards deliberately chose architects who appreciate Ponti’s work. They handed the $ 150 million project, which reopened Sunday, to Machado Silvetti of Boston and Fentress Architects of Denver, who added some 33,000 square feet of public space to the building as well as 50,000 square feet of new construction. . It is refreshing to see eminent architects treat the work of a predecessor with such intelligent deference.

Vertical museums are rare, but here there was no choice; the tight triangular site forced Ponti to build upward. Yet rather than struggle against verticality, he celebrated it. He bent his walls to give them as many facets as possible, 28 in all, and let them rise continuously, so that each continuous line from the sidewalk to the horizon line was vertical. It’s a surprise to find that under all those decorative folds and folds, the plan is as simple as it gets: two adjacent squares tilted so as to join at one corner, with a pair of elevators at their point of intersection.

Much of the renovation, inevitably, is invisible. The building was given new mechanical systems and insulation (which was not standard in the 1960s), the number of elevators was doubled, and the 270 windows were replaced. The spectacular outdoor lighting that once made it an exciting work of abstract sculpture at night, but long since abandoned, has been quietly restored, but with modern, energy-efficient lighting. And an attractive restaurant has been added, just inside the new entrance and not, as originally proposed, on the spectacular roof terrace. “In my experience,” says Christoph Heinrich, director of the German-born museum, “with each additional story, the quality of food in a restaurant decreases accordingly.”

The thorniest challenge of the project was to reorient Ponti’s design to its surroundings, which have changed dramatically over the years. In 2006, the museum erected a second structure to the south, Daniel Libeskind’s titanium-clad Hamilton Building, which displays its characteristic angularity. He’s unusually confrontational, albeit playful, and he points one of his teeth directly at the Ponti building like the blade of a Swiss army knife, sticking out of the street as if to reach it. This naturally changed the center of gravity of the whole and moved it from the east, where the main entrance to the museum had always been, to the south. In recognition of the change, the entrance has also been moved south and topped with a remarkable all-glass pavilion which is the centerpiece of the renovation.

Duncan Hall at the Denver Art Museum


Denver Art Museum

To insert a new pavilion between these two assertive prodigies, one distant and the other arrogant, was already a sufficient challenge. But the site was further limited by Michael Graves’ imposing postmodern Denver Central Library immediately to the east. Faced with too many architectural lions in too small a reserve, Jorge Silvetti, chief designer of the new pavilion, instead opted for reluctance, a “porous and transparent” object which would act to give order to the madly heterogeneous objects of the neighborhood. , rather than adding to the competition.

This kind of architectural speech is often impenetrable to laymen, but Mr. Silvetti wowed the museum’s board of directors and its director with an ingenious touch of architectural staging. He manipulated the image of a still life by Cezanne to remove a single item, an orange, from a table cluttered with a variety of objects – a bowl, a vase, etc. He showed them first the manipulated image and then the original, in which the humble orange with its burst of color instantly brought order and coherence to the mass of objects. Such clever maneuvers make entire careers.

The visitor now enters through a long and cheerful passage illuminated by skylights that offer enticing views of the walls of Ponti looming above. Above this passage hovers the large pavilion, elliptical in shape and covered with concave glass panels which give it the scalloped shape of a fluted Ionic column. Each individual pane is 25 feet high and eight feet wide, the largest curved pane of glass ever made for a building. The space is designed to be flexible and can be partitioned for meetings or open for public events.

Whether this light and airy pavilion achieves the same effect as Cézanne’s orange, the visitor can decide. But it certainly sheds new light on Ponti’s accomplishments. Reserve isn’t always indifference, reserve isn’t always hostility, and renovations and additions to Ponti’s neglected masterpiece have revealed the sweet classic that lurked in plain sight. .

View of Civic Center Park and downtown Denver from the Sturm Grand Pavilion inside the Sie Welcome Center at night.


Denver Art Museum

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