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Pointedly different

Architect Daniel Libeskind's angular building, his first in the U.S., is a good fit with the Colorado capital.

September 30, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Denver — SO Daniel Libeskind knows his way around a master plan after all.

The architect's new wing for the Denver Art Museum, his first finished building in the U.S., appears at first to be primarily an example of aggressive form-making -- a branding exercise for designer and client alike. Libeskind says the museum's angular, titanium-clad exterior, a dazzling piece of architectural sculpture, was inspired by the Rocky Mountains. But it looks more like a collection of metal shards frozen in the middle of a huge explosion.

Inside, the soaring, canted gallery walls and corkscrew circulation pattern produce one dramatic view after another. They also make it impossible to clear your head long enough to consider the art in anything close to a contemplative state.

The combination of visual delight and nearly physical unease produced by the museum hardly comes as a surprise. Libeskind's few completed buildings -- most notably the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened five years ago -- are known for provoking an unusually wide range of responses: grief, a rushing sense of freedom, creeping claustrophobia. Along with a surprising gift for folksy rhetoric, those talents helped Libeskind, who was born in Poland to Holocaust survivors and moved to the U.S. when he was 13, win the 2002 master plan competition at the World Trade Center site.

He is now planner there in name only, and barely that: In ways large and small, his scheme has been circumvented by bureaucrats, politicians and fellow architects. Denver is not Manhattan, of course, and few pieces of real estate in the world have ever been as fraught as ground zero. But the revelation of Libeskind's design for the museum here, and the 55-unit condominium building that he designed next door, is how well its pieces fit into a larger civic puzzle.

For all its iconic power -- and for all the evidence it presents that Libeskind is still fully in thrall to the colliding, fragmented forms of deconstructivist architecture -- this is a project that a New Urbanist could happily endorse.

It also arrives, for better or worse, as validation of Libeskind's famously unflagging optimism. The last line of his 2004 autobiography, "Breaking Ground," reads simply, "You have to believe," and his endlessly rose-colored descriptions of the chaos in the ground zero planning process began, after a while, to sound more desperate than steadfast.

Whatever you make of it, that optimism is certainly his most American trait, and now one American city, at least, is rewarding him for it. When his museum wing opens next Saturday, Libeskind will be able to bask alone in the spotlight. And he'll be able to repeat the process several times over in coming years. His building for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is expected to be finished in 2008, and his New York-based firm has condo towers in the works in Sacramento and suburban Cincinnati.

The heart of his design in Denver, which he completed with a local firm, Davis Partnership, is a pedestrian plaza squeezed between the jagged, nearly windowless front facade of the museum wing and the boxier, fussily detailed condo building. The plaza -- which runs on a strong north-south axis connecting downtown Denver with the Golden Triangle neighborhood -- is the rare pedestrian-only space that avoids a sense of canned urbanism.

In large part this is because Libeskind aggressively varies the distance between the two buildings: At certain points, he pulls them within just a few feet of each other, so that the owners of the condos facing the museum feel as though they can reach out and touch its shimmering facade.

The public spaces also gain from the fact that the street running perpendicular to the plaza, 13th Avenue, remains open to cars and that a new parking lot serving the complex is hidden behind the L-shaped condo wing rather than sunk below the museum itself. This separation forces visitors to walk -- albeit only 75 feet or so -- across the plaza before they reach the front entrance of the Libeskind building. It's a simple trick, but one we too often forget in Los Angeles.

In another direction, the Libeskind wing connects via a long glass bridge, suspended above 13th, to the museum's main existing building, an eccentric fortress-like design by the Italian architect Gio Ponti that opened in 1971. Libeskind's various urban design gestures -- some confrontational, others neighborly -- have created a surprisingly effective relationship among a group of very different buildings. Even Michael Graves' Denver Public Library nearby, a textbook example of over-scaled Postmodernism, is brought smoothly into the conversation by Libeskind, as if he were the practiced host of this kind of architectural cocktail party.

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