Balancing Form, Function In Museum Architecture

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building, an extension of the Denver Art Museum. i i

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building was built as an addition to the Denver Art Museum in 2006. Museum director Lewis Sharp says he selected architect Daniel Libeskind because he wanted a radical design. BitterBredt hide caption

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The Frederic C. Hamilton Building, an extension of the Denver Art Museum.

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building was built as an addition to the Denver Art Museum in 2006. Museum director Lewis Sharp says he selected architect Daniel Libeskind because he wanted a radical design.

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The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. i i

Libeskind designed the exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to evoke the shape of the phrase l'chaim, which means "to life" in Hebrew. Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco hide caption

itoggle caption Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Libeskind designed the exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to evoke the shape of the phrase l'chaim, which means "to life" in Hebrew.

Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Architect Daniel Libeskind i i

"I don't design for the critics," says architect Daniel Libeskind. "You have to design something that you believe in." Studio Daniel Libeskind hide caption

itoggle caption Studio Daniel Libeskind
Architect Daniel Libeskind

"I don't design for the critics," says architect Daniel Libeskind. "You have to design something that you believe in."

Studio Daniel Libeskind
Exterior of the Denver Art Museum addition. i i

Libeskind says his idea for the design of the Denver Art Museum came to him during a plane ride over the Rocky Mountains. BitterBredt hide caption

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Exterior of the Denver Art Museum addition.

Libeskind says his idea for the design of the Denver Art Museum came to him during a plane ride over the Rocky Mountains.

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Daniel Libeskind's sketch of Denver Art Museum i i

Libeskind's concept sketch of the addition to the Denver Art Museum. SDL hide caption

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Daniel Libeskind's sketch of Denver Art Museum

Libeskind's concept sketch of the addition to the Denver Art Museum.

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Interior stairway at the Denver Art Museum i i

The walls of Libeskind's addition at the Denver Art Museum don't meet in neat right angles. The museum has had to get creative to display and hang the art in the obliquely shaped galleries. BitterBredt hide caption

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Interior stairway at the Denver Art Museum

The walls of Libeskind's addition at the Denver Art Museum don't meet in neat right angles. The museum has had to get creative to display and hang the art in the obliquely shaped galleries.

BitterBredt
The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. i i

The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by architect Frank Gehry, is an example of an architecturally significant museum that has drawn people to an otherwise unknown city. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by architect Frank Gehry, is an example of an architecturally significant museum that has drawn people to an otherwise unknown city.

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. i i

Libeskind had to work in tight parameters when he was designing the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. He was tasked with building off of a historic landmark — a power station that dated back to the 1906 earthquake. Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco hide caption

itoggle caption Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Exterior of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Libeskind had to work in tight parameters when he was designing the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. He was tasked with building off of a historic landmark — a power station that dated back to the 1906 earthquake.

Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Daniel Libeskind's sketch of the CJM building. i i

Libeskind's concept sketch of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Studio Daniel Libeskind hide caption

itoggle caption Studio Daniel Libeskind
Daniel Libeskind's sketch of the CJM building.

Libeskind's concept sketch of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Studio Daniel Libeskind
Skylights in the 'Yud' Gallery i i

Light streams into the "Yud" Gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Libeskind says he conceived of the museum as a "conversation" between old and new, in keeping with Jewish tradition. Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco hide caption

itoggle caption Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Skylights in the 'Yud' Gallery

Light streams into the "Yud" Gallery at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Libeskind says he conceived of the museum as a "conversation" between old and new, in keeping with Jewish tradition.

Bruce Damonte/Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Two American museums designed by one world-famous architect have evoked two very different reactions from visitors and critics alike.

The Denver Art Museum and San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum were both designed by Daniel Libeskind. They are part of a trend of ambitious museum architecture projects — the American Association of Museums reports that the amount of money spent on museum construction has gone up five times in the past 15 years.

Both Libeskind museums are seen as architectural standouts. But in buildings designed to showcase art, can form impede function?

'New Ways To Engage A Visitor'

The new addition to the Denver Art Museum stands out from the more traditional boxy buildings around it. Its gray, titanium walls meet at odd angles and reflect back the light of the Colorado sky. It looks a bit like a piece of a distant mountain broke off and landed in downtown Denver.

Libeskind says he conceived it as a "dialogue" between the 21st-century culture of downtown Denver and the surrounding Rocky Mountains.

Lewis Sharp, director of the Denver Art Museum, says the museum has developed at least 20 different ways of hanging objects on the dramatic, sloping walls, which were designed to convey the jagged angles of the Rockies.

Sharp says one of the exciting things about the building is that visitors can see art in a new environment — artists' work is displayed and hung in unusual ways in the obliquely shaped galleries.

"I think you often see things that you had never seen before," Sharp says. "It just raises all types of potentially new ways to engage a visitor."

Many Denver residents love it — museum visitors Emily and David Andreeson say the unique architecture complements the art.

"We're in normal looking buildings every single day," Emily Andreeson says. "It's just kind of an experience to walk into a room that doesn't look like rooms that we would normally be in."

Back in 1999, when Sharp and the museum's board determined that they needed an addition, they saw it as an opportunity to build something spectacular that would draw people to Denver. Sharp says he wanted Libeskind because he knew the architect would do something radical.

'Celebrity Architecture?'

Some locals and critics have come down hard on the building. The Chicago Tribune called it a "warning against irrational exuberance," and The New York Times said its galleries had "tortured geometries."

Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times, says that just because a building is a great architectural achievement doesn't mean it works well as a museum.

"It's a really stunning piece of architectural sculpture," Hawthorne says, but the "aggressive forms" make it "a pretty terrible place for showing and looking at art."

Hawthorne is among those who say the galleries make him dizzy.

Libeskind, who is best known for doing the master plan for the World Trade Center site, is among a handful of celebrities in the profession who have been chosen to design new museums during the boom of the past decade.

The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, is an example of a museum that has drawn people to an otherwise unknown city. Museum planners in cities such as Denver have tried to replicate that success.

Hawthorne thinks Denver museum officials were too wowed by a star architect.

"The Denver Art Museum was in many ways the pinnacle of this idea and belief in celebrity architecture," Hawthorne says. "It was the most extreme example of relying on an architect at the expense of creating spaces just for looking at art."

'The Best Of Both Worlds'

Hundreds of miles away, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco — another Libeskind-designed building — received a very different reception.

Stacy Silver, CJM's marketing director, says the building is a celebration of Jewish culture, history and ideas.

Libeskind had to work under fairly tight parameters on the Contemporary Jewish Museum; he was asked to refurbish and add on to a historic landmark, an old power station that gave life to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

From the outside, the museum looks like a rectangular box with a neo-classic brick facade. But look to the left and there is a huge, blue metallic cube that emerges like a balloon from the side of the building; look up and a blue metallic wedge rises out of the roof.

It's not immediately apparent, but the forms are pieces of Hebrew letters. They cut through the building and spell l'chaim or "to life." Libeskind says he wanted the design to be an homage to the past and to the survival of the Jewish tradition.

"You discover the old and the new in a constant conversation with each other," Libeskind says. "I think that is also part of the Jewish tradition. To do new, but always in conversation with an age-old history."

Inside, the museum lobby has the angled walls that are characteristic of Libeskind's architecture — but there are also more conventional galleries. Stacy Silver says the museum specifically asked Libeskind to incorporate some traditional gallery space.

"The galleries are meant to be functional in that we can actually hang art and show great works whether small drawings or very large photographic installations," Silver says.

Critics and the community have been kinder to Libeskind's San Francisco building than to his efforts in Denver.

LA Times critic Hawthorne says the CJM building allows visitors to "get the best of both worlds."

"You get memorable architecture, and you also get galleries where you can forget about the architecture and concentrate on the art," Hawthorne says.

'The Art Of Constraint'

Hawthorne suggests that in the case of the Denver Art Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, it was the client that made the difference. In Denver, Libeskind had a lot of freedom, whereas in San Francisco, the project had both financial and physical limitations.

"The art of architecture is really the art of constraint," Hawthorne says. "It's the art of compromise in many ways. It's not about a brilliant man or woman working in his or her studio and producing a design and then getting it built. It's about negotiating a whole series of constraints or challenges, whether those have to do with budget or site or the community."

But the two museums also wanted different kinds of buildings and, to a great degree, Libeskind delivered. The architect himself doesn't seem bothered by the critics.

"I don't design for the critics," Libeskind says. "You have to design something that you believe in, and controversy may be part of it We know from history that the buildings that are more criticized are the buildings we love the most."

Despite the critics, ever since the Denver Art Museum opened the Libeskind-designed wing two years ago, attendance has gone up. As for Libeskind's San Francisco building, this is the first time the Contemporary Jewish Museum has had its own building, so it's too soon to tell what impact his design will have on attendance.

Regardless, if the economy continues on its downward trajectory, the number of people who visit museums could go down altogether — which would mean the public won't be seeing any new extravagant buildings in the near future.

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