Buildings can be a lot like people. Some jump up and shout “Look at me !,” the “egotists” if you will, and then there are those whose silent presence at first draws little notice; but with patience and attention they slowly give up their secrets. We have great public examples of both, sitting side by side on a manicured city block in Denver.
The first thing you notice when approaching the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver is how the hulking concrete block of the façade contrasts with the angular, silvery, titanium skin of the Denver Art Museum addition next door. At first you might mistake the CSM for an electrical substation, a purely utilitarian building with few windows. The CSM seems formed of a solid block of concrete with subtly shifting planes. Its entire surface is scored through with vertical fins which have been hammered to produce a rough surface. This is risky business for a building designed in 2008 and finished in 2011, for it harkens back to a modernist style much reviled by the general public. This style was called Brutalism. Some of the famous landmark Brutalist buildings of the 1960s and 70s are now threatened with demolition by a public scornful of a style which has been hard pressed to earn general appeal).
It takes a great deal of knowledge and finesse to successfully use concrete as a finished surface. The architect Louis Kahn was a master of the material, and used it to startling effect in his 3 great museums, the Kimball Museum in Ft. Worth, curved and polished and silvery, the Yale Art Gallery, where it was used to create an intricate geometric structure for the floors and ceiling, and the British Arts Center, a smooth and velvety fortress of polished concrete offset by white oak. The Brutalist approach is much different, as the highly textured concrete, although visually interesting, can appear threatening; if you rub up against the stuff it can tear your arm off. (Full disclosure, I went to architecture school in a building which had similar jagged concrete detailing both inside and out. The students tried to burn it down in the 1960’s…) So what can we make of architect Brad Cloepfil’s use of this stuff after so many years?
Well first of all there is an interesting and somewhat literal resonance between Still’s paintings and the detailing of the concrete. Still’s abstract work is consistently full of jagged, vertical lines. These vertical forms represent the human life force to the painter. Still wrote:
“my paintings have the rising forms of the vertical necessity of life dominating the horizon. For in such a land a man must stand up right, if he would live. And so born then become intrinsic this elemental characteristic of my life and work.”
This resonance between Clyfford Still’s trademark painting element, the jagged vertical line, and the handling of the concrete makes the architect’s choice of an all but abandoned “brutalist” treatment more understandable and contributes to the building’s ultimate success . Cloepfil’s firm, Allied Works, has walked an architectural tightrope here and taken big risks which have really paid off. Still’s powerful abstract paintings look absolutely luminous in this space. In addition, Cloepfil has used many other materials and strategies as a contrast to the concrete which moderate the “brutal” texture and heighten the drama of being in this building.
The experience of the building is immediately softened by approaching the entrance across a lawn and a small forest of young deciduous trees. So it feels as if the CSM is planted in a garden. Although the bulk of the facade is the concrete, the elements that you touch are sensuous and warm, crafted of cedar, oak, and various other woods. The entry is of cedar and glass, the wooden door pulls are sculpted, soft, and curved. As we enter we can start to relax and breathe a sigh of relief. It is inside this building that the magic really starts and we begin to see what a masterly creation we have in this city.
Inside, raw materials are used in innovative ways that are truly beautiful and allow the artwork to shine. This building doesn’t shout but glows with a rare kind of intelligence one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the city of Denver. The entry stair is a study in sensuousness. Rising from a polished concrete floor studded with earth- toned chunks of exposed aggregate, it rises as a modern sculpture formed of oak. Its soft and gentle curves are all the more expressive as they stand in contrast to the rough texture of the walls. It is a stair which invites you to gracefully climb to the galleries above. It is an ennobling experience to walk this stair, its beautiful construction heightened by the rustic concrete which surrounds it.
Another example of marvelous ingenuity is the gallery ceiling. Natural light from large skylights is modified and filtered to a silvery luminescence by a cast concrete screen which floats ever so lightly, as if by magic, above massive concrete walls which divide the main galleries. But this is no mere screen. There is a complex curvilinear geometry which is cast into this architectural tour de force. The apparent lack of seams and the huge expanse which it covers leaves me to wonder at the design, craftsmanship, and execution of this scrim. There is a quality of natural light in the space of these galleries that would be the envy of most of the great museums of the world. Other details similarly delight and comfort the senses, and add to the otherworldly experience.
The gallery benches are crafted of two inches of thick wool felt on top of springy steel legs. They are some of the most comfortable benches you will ever sit on. The glass railings are topped with a contoured oak rail of an unusual and thoughtful shape satisfying to the grip. There are two small exterior gardens of flowering ground covers off of the galleries for viewers to rest their eyes before absorbing more of Stills striking abstractions. The painting storage areas on the entry level, below the galleries, are cleverly on display behind enormous rolling glass doors, allowing us to peak and speculate on further shows. Finally, a thoughtful interactive digital touch display allows visitors to explore the historical context and the timeline of Still’s life and career with the help of photographs, audio, and video.
Although the CSM is of small size it is a masterful creation that really packs a punch. It is a jewel in the crown of Denver’s visual arts complex and should not be missed under any circumstances.
all photos: Clyfford Still Museum