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Allied Works' arresting art museum in Denver

A major new art museum dedicated to the life and work of Clyfford Still draws on the expressive energy and elementality of the painter’s oeuvre

The sober, elemental materiality of the museum exterior is continued into the internal spaces. Perforated ceilings diffuse Denver’s clear mountain light into the galleriesThe sober, elemental materiality of the museum exterior is continued into the internal spaces. Perforated ceilings diffuse Denver’s clear mountain light into the galleries

Clyfford Still belonged to that heroic generation of American artists who made Abstract Expressionism the dominant movement of the 1950s. But he was also a loner, who withheld his work from galleries, moved from New York to a rural retreat, and retained most of the paintings he created over six decades.

In his will, he stipulated that his estate be given to an American city willing to establish a permanent home for the study and exhibition of his art. Some 31 years after his death, that wish has been fulfilled in Denver. TheClyfford Still Museum is a tough fusion of art and architecture, rooted in the earth and open to the sky.

Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture worked closely with director Dean Sobel to create an ideal viewing environment for huge canvases that explode with energy, and smaller early works.The austere concrete block, holding storage, conservation and service areas on the ground floor and galleries above, is a quiet riposte to the irrational exuberance of Denver’s cultural district.

The structure backs up to Daniel Libeskind’s homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with jagged metal shards on the outside, tilted walls and acute angles inside − an ostentatious and dysfunctional extension to the Denver Art Museum, which already has to cope with Gio Ponti’s eccentric castle.

Beyond is Michael Graves’s colourful confection for the Denver Public Library, a PoMo assemblage of Platonic forms. Cloepfil wisely ignores these distractions, drawing his inspiration from landscape and light, as Still did, to serve the art.

Ground Floor PlanGround Floor Plan

Although the artist spent most of his working life in San Francisco and on the eastern seaboard, he grew up on the Prairie and that experience shaped his vision. Denver is set on a mile-high plateau surrounded by the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, a spectacular setting that is mimicked in the white Teflon peaks of the Stapleton Airport terminal. Cloepfil preferred the elemental to the picturesque, starting with a concept model of rammed earth, and planning to clad the building with obsidian slabs.

That proved infeasible, since the glassy fragments would not bond with concrete, and budgetary cutbacks narrowed the range of possibilities. Allied Works was determined to achieve a rough texture that would have a random, undesigned quality, and the practice went through myriad tests and mock-ups with the contractor.

The solution proved simple: bevel the boards in the formwork to allow the concrete to leak out and break off. The deep fins capture the light, and enliven the windowless facades, as do the iridescent tiles that clad the Museum of Arts and Design in New York (AR February 2009).

Early Massing Model

Early Massing Model

A grove of plane trees will partially conceal the museum from the street, casting shadow patterns over the walls. Galleries are cantilevered over a recessed corner entrance, and a staircase draws visitors up from the long, low-ceilinged foyer, ascending into the light. There they move through a grid of nine rooms − defined by poured concrete slabs and drywall − which open into each other and offer oblique views across the floor. A central well and the main staircase provide visual links to the ground level. The feeling is intimate and fluid, and there are two outdoor terraces screened with wooden battens.

Wall openings frame canvases, allowing you to approach them from afar and then to immerse yourself in the explosive colours and forms. Two galleries have 3.8m diagonally boarded ceilings for smaller works, while the others rise 5.5m to a perforated concrete ceiling. The concrete fins are carried inside, but walls supporting the art have a rough-textured surface, offering a tactilitycomplementing the impassioned brushstrokes.

Detail of facade. Concrete was allowed to leach out of the formwork to create the roughly bevelled texture

Detail of facade. Concrete was allowed to leach out of the formwork to create the roughly bevelled texture

The perforated ceiling is set 1.3m above the walls holding the art, and the same distance below the filtered skylights, diffusing the clear mountain light through oval openings. The perforations are set at the same angle to the walls as the boarded ceilings, playing off the vertically marked walls and white oak floorboards.

‘It was very important that the museum be monolithic,’ says Cloepfil. ‘In the US, buildings are assembled from parts. It took a while for the contractor to realise we wanted him to make things.’ There were repeated tests and one wall was torn down, but the effort paid off, for the 12m pours are as impeccable as the detailing. In mass and natural lighting, the building is a worthy heir to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum − Cloepfil’s model of what an art museum should be.

Cutbacks were turned to advantage. As an economy, the block was set back from the street and a third floor was eliminated, but the display area was only slightly reduced. The resulting delay gave everyone time to perfect the execution. About 70 paintings and sketches, hung chronologically with brief text panels, comprise the inaugural exhibition. Still’s art is so powerful and little-seen that even a small sampling of the 2,400 works in the collection is an unforgettable experience, and this is enhanced by the architectural frame.

Cloepfil drew on his long experience of designing museums and his familiarity with the key works, to calibrate the proportions of each room. As he observes, ‘elemental language can create spaces that are resonant and feel infinite.’It is rewarding to compare the rigour and subtlety of this building with David Adjaye’s Denver Museum of Contemporary Art to the north (AR April 2008).

Both architects have an innate respect for artists, and an intuitive understanding of how to enhance the experience of viewing their works. Adjaye provides a multi-layered complex of versatile display spaces for temporary exhibitions within a translucent envelope; a cabinet of curiosities that feels airborne.

In contrast, Cloepfil has created a massive, impermeable block that appears to hide in plain viewand will soon be embowered by mature trees. The archives and storage areas beyond the foyer are equally shadowy. Above, the art is washed with natural light and appears to float free of the walls that act as frames. There is an alternation of rough and refined, radiant and crepuscular, contained and free-flowing; above all, a pervasive serenity.

Concrete walls and white oak floors form a neutral backdrop to the display of Still’s vibrant paintings. A leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Still was among the first to embrace the movement. The new museum re-acquaints the public with his impre

Concrete walls and white oak floors form a neutral backdrop to the display of Still’s vibrantpaintings. A leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Still was among the first to embrace movement. The new museum re-acquaints the public with his impressive body of work

Architects: Allied Works Architecture
Structural engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers
Services engineer: Arup
Landscape consultant: Reed Hilderbrand Associates
Photographs: Jeremy Bittermann

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