Not just another cow town

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There is nothing new in US cities turning to avant-garde European architects in an attempt to forge themselves a new cultural identity. In the late 1960s, at the height of the US urban crisis when wealth emigrated to the suburbs creating ‘doughnut cities’ (decimated, poverty stricken downtowns) Denver invited Italian superstar Gio Ponti to design an art museum. Denver didn’t want to be just another cow-town and their prize was one of the period’s oddest structures. Instead of the usual concrete bunkers which defined the era, Ponti gave the city a grey-glass tiled castle, a shimmering tower pierced by seemingly-random slots and slashes. It can be a fine line between beauty and ugly and Ponti’s museum stuck as closely to that line as the half-mile long freight trains which pass through the other end of downtown.

They must have loved it though because in 2000 they invited Daniel Libeskind to build a new wing to their museum. At the time Libeskind was little known outside architecture circles. His most prominent building had been the awesomely spiky Jewish Museum in Berlin, then his home city. The Jewish Museum was a controversial structure, a museum far more successful and moving when empty than when it was finally filled with exhibits but it did show that Libeskind was one of the few contemporary architects able (or even willing to attempt) to express atmosphere, mood, even horror purely through architecture.

A couple of years after this appointment Libeskind suddenly became the most famous architect in the world when he was called in to masterplan the redevelopment of Ground Zero. His role there has been progressively, and brutally whittled away but in Denver he has again proved himself a fascinating and unique proposition.

For all its insecurities, Denver is not just another cow-town. As people kept gently reminding me throughout my brief stay, this isolated city has the most-highly educated population of any city after Washington D.C., it has an extraordinary set of cultural buildings including one of the biggest public libraries and one of the biggest performing arts centres in the U.S. and, of course it has that superb art museum founded, incredibly, in 1893.

The appointment of Libeskind was brave, perceptive and, ultimately, very clever. The Polish-born but now New York native architect has never built anything which fits-in. His notoriously angular structures, generated from folding and smashing exercises, are deliberate sculptural statements of angst and urban fragmentation. Yet here, in a grouping embracing Michael Graves’s pompous Post Modern library and Ponti’s pseudo-medieval museum tower, Libeskind’s spiky structure fits like a glove. Its gleaming titanium-clad surface catches the Colorado sun and gently beams it back down onto a new public plaza and across the park, from a grey-glowing halo at dawn to a misty-pink sunset mode, its multitude of facets reflect and refract the light like a jewel.

The problem, I had thought to myself, was going to be the interior. This kind of thing is fine as sculpture, it gives the required international coverage in the increasingly sensationalised art world but it pays scant regard to what goes on inside. I’d seen enough of Libeskind’s work to know that he can be more interested in making the architecture communicate than in accommodating the everyday requirements of a quotidian brief. But I was wrong to worry. In an period in which we have become accustomed to blockbuster galleries, when each new week brings the announcement of another superstarchitect commission, this one stands out.

From the moment you enter its brilliant-white origami-folded atrium this structure begins to physically affect you, to suck you up its twisting geometry, to tantalise you with hidden light sources and jagged corners. This is Caligari’s cabinet on a good day, the final realisation of expressionist restlessness almost a century after it first emerged as a vehicle for Germany’s Weimar-period existential angst. Libeskind doesn’t see it like that, the forms, he says, were inspired by his view of the Rockies as his plane flew into the airport. Well, maybe, but it doesn’t explain how it uses the same language as his other buildings. This is, in truth, pure Libeskind.

The interior is a potential disaster for art. There is barely a wall in the building rising at right angles from floor to ceiling. Instead there are endless inclined planes and odd-shaped rooms leaving left-over, too-sharp corners in their wake. But, against the odds (and probably with some brilliant work from the curators), it manages to accommodate the art in a fresh, intelligent and stunning manner. A wonderful cocktail of Western Art, native art, design (twice the size of MoMA’s collection) and Far-Eastern works are all accommodated sympathetically but it is with the big contemporary stuff that the structure comes in to its own. There is a Robert Smithson which seems tailor-made for its seemingly impossible setting beneath a long-inclined wall sloping uncomfortably toward the viewer, there is a spectacular Gene Davis canvas which is allowed to float ethereally on an inclined surface and there is an Anthony Gormley sculpture which sparkles in its sharply-angled corner, a slash of light throwing its myriad metal sticks into a brilliantly revivified moment of suspension. A Dan Flavin is mesmeric in its odd leftover corner, ensuring its glow doesn’t contaminate other works whilst the walls even cope with a big rusty Serra and delicately refract light off a Carl Andre. Even the Donald Judd cubes on the terrace seem to react well to their siting, their stainless steel bristling against the titanium panels and the backdrop of the dumbly reflecting downtown skyscrapers and the snow-capped mountains on the horizon beyond.

It is not perfect however, the light is on occasion too strong, there are bits of timber on the floor which you slowly realise are not to keep you away from the art but to stop you banging your head on the sloping ceilings. And at points the architecture detracts from your ability to concentrate on the contents. Brit Probst, of Davis Partnership, the US architects who partnered Libeskind on the construction, makes an interesting point when he says that the radical external form of the building and the disorientating folded form of the atrium prepare the visitor for the art spaces, which feel far less radical and strange than they might after that initial bruising. When I ask Libeskind himself whether the form really was inspired by the Rockies, it does after all look like everything else he has drawn for about twenty years, he engagingly says its form derived from ‘two lines taking a walk’. He says its angular form, it’s prow-like juttings allowed him to create a small footprint and use the leftover space on the ground as a new public plaza, the building cantilevering out above it. He continues that, after all, the whole of Western music ‘is based on only 8 tones yet it can embody radically different experiences’

What he also says is that the building could only have been achieved through the openness, adventurousness and lack of cynicism of his clients, that it is somehow an expression of the optimism and pioneer spirit of the American West. Well, I guess it’s true that German expressionism found its most popular, and arguably enduring influence not in its own silent movies but on its pervading effect on Hollywood’s Film Noir, the dark shadows, the winding staircases, the city as a set for fear and deceit. It is possible then that the doyen of deconstruction should realise his fragmented vision most fully not in the layered, awkward cities of Central Europe but on the enduringly open edge of the old West.

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