The Civic Center area of Denver, Colorado includes a number of governmental and cultural institutions. In the latter camp are the Denver Public Library (Michael Graves, 1995) and the Denver Art Museum (Gio Ponti, 1971 and Daniel Libeskind, 2006), and now the small but substantial Clyfford Still Art Museum designed by Allied Works. Sitting right next to Libeskind's DAM addition, the museum devoted to the Abstract Expressionist artist Clyfford Still gains a strong presence through the careful articulation of the textured concrete exterior. Architect Brad Cloepfil, founding principal of Allied Works, answered some questions about the museum that recently opened to the public.
Bannock Street (west) elevation.
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
In July 2006, the Clyfford Still Museum invited 23 local, national and international firms to submit credentials by issuing a request for qualifications (RFQ). The Museum also requested that architects demonstrate their ability to deliver a building that is architecturally significant on an international scale. The firms shortlisted to advance to the design competition stage included: Allied Works Architecture (Portland/New York City); David Chipperfield Architects (London); Diller Scofidio + Renfro (New York City); Ohlhausen DuBois Architects (New York City); and SANAA (Tokyo). From the five, Allied Works, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Ohlhausen DuBois were invited to give formal presentations in Denver.
In November 2006, it was announced that Allied Works Architecture had been selected to design the Clyfford Still Museum. “Throughout the selection process, Brad Cloepfil impressed the Clyfford Still Architect Selection Committee with his past museum experience, strong architectural vision, and shared respect for the artist, his work, and the mission of the Museum,” said Dean Sobel, Director of the Clyfford Still Museum.
Libeskind's DAM building can be seen at left.
Can you describe your design process for the building?
The primary purpose of this building is to hold the work of Clyfford Still, to make room for the voice of a single artist. As a museum it is a particular and intimate experience. Yet the site for the museum resides in a monumental context; at the intersection of prairie and mountains, in the Civic Center, a cultural district inhabited by buildings of grand collective and cultural narrative.
The new museum mediates this setting with two distinct acts. The first prepares the site by creating a dense and constant grove of deciduous trees - a place of shadow and light, a place of refuge from the endless summer sun. The second act of architecture looks to the earth, the weight and stillness of it. The new building derives its presence from the earth, pressing down into it, being held by it. The museum is conceived as a solid, a mass of concrete, crushed granite and quartz - a single construction that is opened up by natural light. The body of the building becomes the source of light for the art. Light is amplified, diffused and obscured by each surface of the building. The exterior façade merges with the shadows of the trees and with stark intensity the sky. The entrance, beneath the canopy of trees, presses the visitor to the earth. The darkness of the lobby provides an interval, a place of transition, before rising to the galleries. In the upper level galleries, the visitor moves through a series of luminous rooms where they encounter the work of Clyfford Still. The galleries respond to the art, changing scale and proportion, varying the intensity of light.
Reception lobby and main stair leading to the main galleries.
How does the completed building compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?
During the drawing process and as a result of the global economic recession, the construction budget was cut by 50% and the space program cut by 25%. Yet this process only served to intensify the building experience, to hone the proportion of rooms and the detailing of materials - creating a more elemental experience with the art.
The building itself is completely new, with new construction techniques - an outcome of craft in construction, not material and product specification. The final outcome was derived from intensive experimentation, with many mock-ups. The day-lighting technique has never been done before, the concrete pouring and forming entirely new. All processes were developed by working with the engineers, day-lighting consultants and the construction team.
That said, the final building in form, texture and experience was very close to the quality of our final rendering. But the quality of light, as a result of the research and testing, was even more evocative than we had hoped for – visceral, almost liquid – a quality that exists only in the Clyfford Still Museum.
The gallery spaces are lit via skylights over a cast-in-place, perforated concrete ceiling.
How does the building compare to other projects in your office, be it the same or other building types?
Our projects strive to absolute specificity, with each project reflecting the specific character of the local conditions - the city, the landscape and the institution. Yet each project is inspired by the same key elements: the power of landscape, the nature of structure and construction material, and the possibility of the natural light.
The Clyfford Still Museum uses enormous concrete pours, large structural cantilevers and new means of forming concrete to achieve a sense of compression and luminosity – in response to the surrounding urban context, the scale and tenchique of the work of Clyfford Still and the 300 days of sun that Denver receives a year.
The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City was cut to reveal the nature of the existing structure, inviting in views of the city and natural light. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis was the result of an ambiguous woven boundary of concrete, in response to the devastation of the surrounding neighborhood. The Dutchess County Residence Guest House also binds itself to a site, this time with steel tubing.
All of our projects attempt to illuminate a quality of the given context, to amplify a new insight using structure, landscape and light.
Concept Sketch ( Drawing ©: Brad Cloepfil )
How does the building relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
First, we do not consider sustainability a trend. It is a fact of building. All projects share the responsibility to aspire to the utmost principles of sustainable practice.
This building is a critique of many trends in contemporary architecture. It is not based on global production ideals and manufacturing processes, but celebrates all things local. It is a crafted piece of architecture, not a design commodity. It relies on the skills of the workers, their commitment, time and labor. The material character and techniques were discovered through shared work, not imposed by design and produced in a factory in Asia or Europe. It is a building in service of an artist and his work, not the elevation of an architectural style. It pursues specificity rather than novelty. It elevates profound experience over image. It aspires to insight, intimacy and introspection – eschewing new techniques for the visceral quality of the made thing.
Concept Model ( Visualization ©: Allied Works )
Are there any new/upcoming projects in your office that this building’s design and construction has influenced?
The Clyfford Still Museum is a fulcrum project for the work of Allied Works. It synthesizes many of the past pursuits of the office – the level of craft, our collaborations with structural, landscape and day-lighting engineers. It is our highest achievement to date in singular material body that amplifies multiple perceptions and creates a sense of infinite connection between dark and light, the galleries and the exterior. A spatial experience and quality of light that is absolutely unique.
It is has also provided inspiration for our newest work. The National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary Alberta, though a larger building, and serving music rather than visual art, takes many of these principles even further. It is building of completely interdependent spatial and structural systems – with structure suspended from five stories above to enclose the performance space and enormous transfer beams that span 165 feet to create the clearing for the lobby and ground floor space. It is a new form, a continuous woven surface at a very large scale. It also pursues new materials, working in metal to create light reflecting and acoustic panels for the interior, and in ceramic (as with Museum of Arts and Design) to create a new glaze that reflects the quality of light in the Canadian prairie.
E-Mail Interview conducted by John Hill