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Denver Art Museum, Project Story

Jorge Silvetti   March 2020

The elliptical Sie Welcome Center under construction in 2019, with the renovated Martin Building in the background, the Libeskind addition to the left, and the Michael Graves library addition to the right. Photo by Jason Knowles
What could be the best formal and urbanistic strategy to insert a new piece of architecture that is functionally connected to the only work by Gio Ponti in the USA?


his straightforward question that we posed to ourselves in Boston when we decided to respond to the Request for Qualifications that launched the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) search for an architect in 2016, turned more complex after we were selected* and became more familiar with other variables and conditions that define this already dense urban node of modern Denver.

*The winning team was composed of Fentress Architects, Architect-of-Record and Machado Silvetti, Design Associate. While this terse contractual description does correctly inform about legal roles, this association operated as a true collaborative partnership, with clear but totally interdependent roles. Machado Silvetti conceived and designed the project, pairing our own design and technical capacity with that of Fentress, enabling results and innovations that neither firm might achieve on its own.

This is because the “Ponti issue”, as stated originally, raised only the question of the relationships between the future new building and the structure that bears the signature of the ineffable Italian designer’s architectural style, and to which the new structure will be attached and become part of a larger and single functional building. However, while on site we discovered that there were many other critical adjacencies to account for, chiefly three other architectural and urban landmarks, and a large public parking garage. The three major buildings are the original Gio Ponti-designed museum building on the north side of the complex, the so-called North Tower, now the Lanny and Sharon Martin Building; the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, a 146,000 square-foot addition to the Denver Art Museum, designed by Studio Libeskind, to the south across the street from the Martin Building; a large parking garage to the southeast; the Denver Central Library, the 405,000 square-foot addition to the original building, designed by Michael Graves & Associates and completed in 1995, to the east. Moreover, this set of buildings, together with their particular location contiguous with the Denver’s Civic Center, creates a much larger problem that we believed our design would also need to address.

Fig. 1: Composite site plan. Collage of the original plans for each of the four major buildings (drawings produced by their authors). Clockwise starting at the upper right: the Denver Art Museum (before latest expansion); below Denver Central Library; below left Cultural Center Complex Parking Garage; upper left, the Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

After these insights it was humbling to realize that as the problem acquired larger urbanistic dimensions, the relative size of our new addition, already a small building compared with the existing structure, became even smaller when seen next to this vast urban district. Finally, the future new building’s location, while originally understood as one of a pair of buildings, was now the very center of a whole urban ensemble of notable buildings and, de facto, the veritable new center of gravity of this area. An analytical plan that we produced at this time by collaging copies of the original layouts of the three major landmark buildings (Fig. 1), starkly reflects the absence of formal coordination, functional dialogue and urban articulation that characterizes the site, all vividly underlined by the different representational techniques of each of the architects (Ponti, Libeskind, Graves). From this evidence, we produced a crisper analytical plan in which we highlighted the main entrance orientations of all these buildings (red dotted lines in Fig. 2). This provides blunt confirmation of the unconsidered relationships between them and their disorienting effect on the passerby or visitor to this cultural center.

Fig. 2: Analytical plan. Red dotted lines indicated main entrances to four major buildings in Fig. 1

So at the outset it became clear that we needed to operate not only at two different scales, architectural and urbanistic, but also to address two very different design problems. One that would involve establishing how the new building would become a contributing part to this emblematic urban center, and the other requiring us not just to define the type of design relationships between the architectures of Gio Ponti’s original Museum and our intervention, but also how to control the transformation of a much beloved, five-decades-old building for which we were also asked to faithfully restore some of its original parts, remodel others and add new ones. Finally, implicit in all this, there was a looming third question: how much those differently scaled design tasks could be combined harmoniously in one single intervention that would synthesize and resolve this multilayered and complex urban puzzle? Could all this be achieved by the addition of a small, two-story building at its center? I believe we did achieve such synthesis and harmony, and also endowed the new building with the features and character necessary to perform the central role of this ensemble.

Fig. 3: First conceptual plan drawing testing the circular plan form for the new building

Having studied the site thoroughly with the analytical and critical tools of the urban designer, it was obvious to us that any new building whose design followed the much tried option strategy of mimicking adjacent buildings to achieve contextual integration, regardless of its inherent lack of inspiration and vision, was doomed to total failure, as any chosen source of contextual response would only assert the preeminence of one of those buildings over the others at best, and exacerbate the dissonance of the ensemble at worst. We realized that we had to take a more challenging path: to find a new form, a distinctive figure and a new language that will stand out in the midst of the existing cacophony of configurations and materials. Paradoxically, it became evident that the form of our relatively small addition could only gain traction and succeed in taking the assigned commanding central position in this urban ensemble if it not only differentiated itself from the rest, but if it was materialized in a volume of undisputed autonomy, a platonic-body of absolute formal clarity. Our first and defining choice was to design a building with a circular plan form (Fig. 3). A circle (which was a short-hand conceptual illustration of a direction to follow and the formal attributes to be assigned to the definitive configuration) immediately showed its efficiency as it unequivocally established a center for the new urban ensemble and equally addressed all the directions that converged or radiated from it, thus providing the focus and a precise line of orientation to any of the multiple approaches to the Museum towards its main entrance. Equally important, the circle is the paradigm of formal calm, stability and distinction, a form that, because of its clarity and simplicity, would stand out among all the existing individualities.

Interestingly, as we were concurrently thinking about how to relate our design to Ponti’s building, we also knew that the answer would not come from borrowing its stylistic vocabulary, so original and suited for the large, solid and fort-like tower, since the dimensional and programmatic requirements of the new addition determined and required almost its opposite: respectively, a low and broad structure and a porous and transparent building. In this parallel search for a positive relationship, it was by digging more profoundly in Ponti’s trove of design ideas that we found a source of inspiration that directly addressed such concerns and also converged with the idea of the circular form.

Fig. 4: One of the “scoops” on the Seventh floor terrace overlooking the city and the Rockies beyond. Photo by James Florio
Fig. 5: The original Museum entrance, by Gio Ponti

In Ponti’s early plans for the Museum, we found a formal strain that had not been fully developed in the final building: traces of curvilinear elements appearing sporadically in otherwise austere and rectilinear plans and elevations. There are four clear instances where Ponti shows unequivocally his intention to mark moments of unique architectural conditions by expressing them in a curvilinear language that contrast with the overall building. Two of them visibly stand out today, first the delightful scoops at the top of the exterior walls (Fig. 4) and against the sky, a design feature that is key in the definition of the building’s character and identity as a building like no other, and second the spectacular elliptical extruded metal portal to the Museum, its original main entrance (Fig. 5). The other two share the same formal genes, but had only remained in paper, one in an original Ponti sketch plan of the whole ensemble showing an auditorium in the form of an independent cylindrical volume of elliptical plan (Fig. 6), and lastly in the curvilinear exterior walls of a proposed seventh floor terrace Museum Members Club (Fig. 7). In all four instances, these are distinctive formal “events” that strategically punctuate and contrast with the larger building while each performs a unique functional role. Just as important is that each of them belongs to the family of ellipses, either in complete form or in fragmentary versions of elliptical arcs.

(LEFT) Fig. 6: Gio Ponti’s original ground-level plan proposal for the museum building showing in the lower left the proposed by unrealized elliptical auditorium and the extensive use of curvilinear forms in the organization of the landscape and outdoor public spaces.
(RIGHT) Fig. 7: Gio Ponti’s original seventh-floor plan for the museum showing the special organization of the proposed but unrealized Museum Members Club facilities, characterized by the use of curvilinear exterior glass walls.

As if reverberating with echoes from these formal recurrences, our choice of overall form, a proposal of a circular configuration for the addition, which had been well-received by the client, was evolving and gravitating from a circular disc towards an ovoidal cylinder. Such a distorted configuration offered some practical advantages without giving up on the circle’s main attributes: more flexibility of use as it established two different radii allowing the long one a subtle dominant direction that accompanies the trace of the new entrance and its continuous main gallery, which we had finally resolved by extending the primary geometry of Ponti’s ground plan without giving up, at the urbanistic scale, the multidirectional nature of the circular form.

Elliptical volume in relation to the Martin Building (black)

At this point we felt we were on firm ground as we had found an abstract, generic design element of great formal clarity and commanding presence that stood out at the center of this cultural complex. At the same time, (and as we worked to accommodate into this plan form new programs and building elements not present in Ponti’s original, the adoption of the elliptical configuration was realizing his presumed strategy to mark the original Museum with particular distinctive formal events of ellipsoidal lineage, which in turn would play against the stark solidity and linearity of the much larger and dominant Martin Building. From this position we extended this formal vocabulary to other special moments in our building, defined by new programmatic areas such as the outdoor semi-sunken oval courtyard, between the ground level and the lower, renovated Kemper Court, and the main interior public grand stair that leads from the ground floor to the large multi-purpose second floor room (Fig. 8.

Fig. 8: Ground Floor plan of the Welcome Center showing main entrance (1), Main Hall (2) flanked by the cafeteria/outdoor terrace (3) Kemper Courtyard (4) and new sunken oval courtyard (5) on the right and on the left, by the Restaurant (6), public ticketing and information counter (7), and the half ellipsoidal grand stairs (8) leading to the upper floor ellipsoidal Sturm Grand Pavilion.

The final version of our new addition comprises three levels totally transparent to the outdoors, defined by three distinctive programmatic layers (Fig. 9); first, the oval fluted glazed Sturm Grand Pavilion in the second floor; second, the ground floor that follows the rectilinear grid of the original Ponti building at this level and contains all the main expanded public facilities (including a full restaurant, a separate cafeteria with outdoor seating, and the Bartlit Learning and Engagement Center), and continues the original glass skin; and third, the lower level that opens to the Kemper court, and houses new educational, exhibition and conservation facilities. This richly woven ensemble constitutes the Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center (Fig. 10). Two buildings, one Museum, two different architectures united not stylistically, materially or formally, but by a design attitude that imbues the final synthesis with figural events of common lineage, and exist in contrast to the rest the building configuration.

Fig. 9: Section through the lower Kemper Courtyard showing the Sie Welcome Center. From left to right: on the second floor the ellipsoidal Sturm Grand Pavilion, (joined to the Hamilton building by a bridge over 13th Street), on the ground floor the main entrance to the Museum, the Cafeteria and Cafeteria Terrace, the Main Hall (that continuous Ponti’s plan orientation and its original fenestration), and the original Oval entrance to the Museum at the extreme right; and below ground, the Kemper Courtyard.
Fig. 10: N-E aerial view of the Denver Art Museum with the Sie Welcome Center in the foreground. Notice the use of the oval form in distinctive architectural elements. From left to right: the new Sturm Grand Pavilion, the sunken oval court, and the original Ponti’s oval entry portico now connected to the sidewalk with a new bridge.

Among this formal narrative of new events of common genes, there is now an important move that gives undisputed preeminence to one of them. By size, location and programmatic content, it is the large elliptical disc that shapes and contains the second floor multi-purpose Sturm Grand Pavilion of the Sie Welcome Center, and presents itself to the city in all directions dressed up in a magnificent garb; a continuous fluted glass drum that emanates and plays day and night the ever changing light in its articulated twice-curvilinear surface (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11: View of the new main entrance to the Denver Museum of Art in the Sie Welcome Center

The overall project’s complete new set of interventions in the original Ponti building involved many more operations at different scales than what I described so far, but it is impossible to indicate and refer to them in detail in this short essay. Specifically, those interventions related directly to the original Ponti building are all listed in the diagram below for readers interested to know how the original museum building has been renovated. Here I’ve only tried to present the most important initial set of decisions at the urban and architectural scales that established a general design approach that addressed both scales of intervention, gave the Martin Building a general design character and shifted the center of gravity of the ensemble to a more adequate location that anchors the Museum as the center piece of what is today Denver’s veritable Cultural Center.

Diagrammatic description of the interventions, additions and expansions made to the Martin Building and surrounding site

At the same time and from the outset, we pursued the deliberate, particular goal of finding and retrieving inspiration from some of Gio Ponti’s ideas that resulted in the creation of the most important design component of the whole project: the defining glass beacon that gives new formal identity to the institution, and new iconic clarity to one of the most vibrant districts of the city of Denver (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12: View of the ensemble at night

Project Credits

Owner: Denver Art Museum
Design Architect: Machado Silvetti
Architect of Record: Fentress Architects
Landscape Architect: Mundus Bishop
General Contractor: Saunders Construction
Photographs: Authorship noted in captions
*All drawings and renderings are attributable to Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects

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