Museum  November 24, 2021  Colleen Smith

Denver Art Museum Polishes Architectural Gems Old & New

Photo by Colleen Smith.

The Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center on the left & the Martin Building on the right.

The largest, most prevalent treasures of the Denver Art Museum are the DAM’s buildings designed by renowned architects: Gio Ponti and Daniel Libeskind. Ponti’s tile-covered high-rise with unusually placed and shaped windows brings to mind a castle and Libeskind’s titanium-clad triangulations evoke gargantuan origami.

Most recently Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects designed the sparkling new ellipse dubbed the Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center. From outside, the new structure resembles an enormous glittering crown, a glass spaceship, or—as several people have described it—a beacon.

Prior to the DAM’s October 24 reopening to the public, Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s director for the past fourteen years, spoke with this author about the architecture on campus. “Our new Sie Welcome Center weaves our campus together as the connector,” says Heinrich. “Denver always has been visionary in these architectural statements. The spirit of the West is entrepreneurial, open-minded. We don’t have centuries-old structures. Denver is a young city.”

Photo by Colleen Smith.

Scale model of the Denver Art Museum campus.

The DAM’s $175 million upgrade commemorated, in Mile High City style, the fiftieth anniversary of the Ponti building, one of the early landmarks in the downtown Denver Cultural Complex. Formerly known as the Ponti Building or the North Building, the structure now is known as the Martin Building in homage to Denver Art Museum Board Chairman Lanny Martin and his wife, Sharon Martin, contributors of the lead gift of $25 million.

The DAM’s innovative structure is the only building Ponti, the celebrated Italian modernist, completed in North America. Ponti was seventy-four when hired to collaborate with Denver-based James Sudler Associates on the site-specific structure.

“Ponti worked with a weird piece of real estate, triangular,” Heinrich adds. “He designed the first high-rise art museum with nine floors—seven above ground and two underground—not a big Beaux-Arts temple. It was really a gamechanger on its own.”

Photo by Colleen Smith.

Hamilton Building interior.

Heinrich praises the structure’s form and function: “It’s an incredibly smart concept with the spine of the elevators and stacked galleries. I love the Met in New York, but to go to a certain collection you might go through five other collections.”

“Here, you get to the lobby and look at the elevator pad, and if you want to see Asian art, you zip directly up to the fifth floor, and not through galleries and galleries and galleries to get there. It’s much more visitor-friendly. Especially for 1971, the elegance and very specific space to place windows that add rhythm: It’s very, very unique and spectacular,” Heinrich concludes.

The building’s reopening includes an exhibit titled Gio Ponti: Designer of a Thousand Talents. One of the exhibition’s signs reads as follows: “Gio Ponti (1891-1979) was one of the most inventive Italian architects and designers of his time. . . . Ponti’s multidisciplinary creativity reflected his insatiable search for innovation and a mind at home with contradiction.”

Photo by Colleen Smith.

Photo of Gio Ponti featured in the exhibition Gio Ponti: Designer of a Thousand Talents.

When the Ponti-designed building opened five decades ago, the DAM welcomed 100,000 to 200,000 visitors per year. Now the museum accommodates up to 900,000 visitors annually.

The architects involved in the DAM’s project were no strangers to major museum designs. In his comments at a press preview of the buildings, Jorge Silvetti noted that inspiration for the welcome center came from a Paul Cézanne still-life with abstracted circles and an orange. As for Ponti’s building, he said, “The skin was good, so the building is not too changed.”

One significant change: Ponti’s original vision finally was realized with the opening of the rooftop terrace on the seventh floor.

“It’s an extraordinary platform that connects visitors to the American West,” says Silvetti, “a perfect place to take a break in a visit.”

Photo by Colleen Smith.

Rooftop view at the Denver Art Museum campus.

On a clear day, the terrace offers vistas of about 120 miles of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, as well as the surrounding cityscape. The rooftop, in fact, revealed the bigger picture for the DAM’s major project, which had its genesis about ten years ago when the DAM hatched a relatively small plan to do something with the seventh floor that was never completed as Ponti intended.

“There was a vacancy. Once engineers told us it’s a strong construction that can endure time, it’s not a scraper, the foundation is solid, from there on everything built up,” explains Heinrich.  “We started saying, ‘If we do, we should address that.’ We asked how we could make the museum relevant now, for the next fifty years and the next hundred years.”

To document the architectural milestones, the DAM published a new, comprehensive book titled Gio Ponti in the American West.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.

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