Balancing Form, Function In Museum Architecture Two American museums designed by one world-famous architect have evoked two very different reactions from visitors and critics alike. Laura Sydell investigates the tensions between form and function in the latest installment of NPR's series on 21st-century museums.
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Balancing Form, Function In Museum Architecture

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Balancing Form, Function In Museum Architecture

Balancing Form, Function In Museum Architecture

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Two art museums, one world-famous architect, and two very different receptions. As part of our series on the 21st century museum, today, tensions between form and function. NPR's Laura Sydell has this tale of the two buildings and of architect Daniel Libeskind.

LAURA SYDELL: The new addition of 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. It's a symbol of the place, says architect Daniel Libeskind.

Mr. DANIEL LIBESKIND (Architect): Kind of a dialogue between the culture of the city, an exciting 21st century city, Denver, and the extraordinary Rocky Mountains and the pioneering spirit of America.

SYDELL: The inside of the building also conveys the jagged angles of the surrounding mountains.

Mr. LEWIS SHARP (Director, Denver Art Museum): We probably have developed as many as 20 different ways of hanging objects on these sloping walls.

SYDELL: That is Lewis Sharp, director of the Denver Art Museum. In these obliquely shaped galleries, you will see art displayed and hung in unusual ways. Sometimes walls don't come together at right angles and instead, create narrow triangles.

Mr. SHARP: I think one of the exciting things about this building, you see art in an entirely new environment and in an entirely new circumstance, and I think you often see things that you had never seen before. And it just, you know, raises all types of potentially new ways to engage a visitor.

SYDELL: For example, in one gallery, a voice draws you to a small alcove hidden behind the wall.

Unidentified Woman: What did you say?

SYDELL: Inside the alcove is a sculpture by Tony Oursler. There's a doll in a suitcase with an oversized talking head.

Mr. SHARP: Here, it has this little corner devoted to it. If you think about our collection, suddenly, you find things that do become sort of - they have their own little world, their own little space.

SYDELL: When Sharp and the museum's board determined that they needed an addition back in 1999, they saw it as an opportunity to build something spectacular that would draw people to Denver. Sharp says he wanted Daniel Libeskind because they knew he would do something radical, and many in Denver do love it. Emily and David Andreeson are pretty typical.

Ms. EMILY ANDREESON: I think it kind of added to it a little bit. I mean, we're in normal-looking buildings every single day. It's just kind of an experience to walk into a room that doesn't look like rooms that we would normally be in. So, I like it. It complemented the art.

Mr. DAVID ANDREESON: It's kind of part of it, right?



SYDELL: But other locals and critics have come down hard on the building. The Chicago Tribune called it a warning against irrational exuberance. The New York Times said its galleries had tortured geometries. Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE (Architecture Critic, Los Angeles Times): It's a really stunning piece of architectural sculpture in many ways, and one that, as a result, I think, of those really aggressive forms, is a pretty terrible place for showing and looking at art.

SYDELL: Hawthorne is among those who say the galleries make him dizzy. Daniel Libeskind is best known for doing the master plan for the World Trade Center site. He is among a handful of celebrities in the profession who have been chosen to design new museums during the boom of the last decade.

The best example is perhaps the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry. It's drawn people to an otherwise unknown city. Museums like Denver have tried to replicate that success. But Christopher Hawthorne thinks Denver museum officials were too wowed by a star architect.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: The Denver Art Museum was in many ways the pinnacle of this idea and belief in celebrity architecture. It was the most extreme example of relying on an architect and architectural form-making at the expense of creating spaces just for looking at art.

SYDELL: But hundreds of miles away in San Francisco, a Libeskind-designed building got a very different reception, the Contemporary Jewish Museum or CJM.

Ms. STACY SILVER (Marketing Director, Contemporary Jewish Museum): Which is about a celebration of Jewish culture, history, arts, and ideas.

SYDELL: Stacy Silver is CJM's marketing director. Unlike in Denver, here, Libeskind had to work under some pretty tight parameters. He was asked to refurbish and add on to a historic landmark.

Ms. SILVER: It was an old (unintelligible) power station that actually gave life to the city after the 1906 earthquake.

SYDELL: Here on the outside, the museum looks like a rectangular box with this lovely brick neo-classic facade. But I look to the left, and there is a huge, blue metallic cube, and it's emerging like a balloon from the side of the building. I look up, and I see a blue metallic wedge on the roof. Now, you can't actually tell, but the forms are pieces of Hebrew letters, and they cut through the building and spell l'chaim or to life. Libeskind says he wanted to create an homage to the past and to the survival of the Jewish tradition.

Mr. LIBESKIND: Where you discover the old and the new in a constant conversation with each other, and I think that is also part of the Jewish tradition, to sort of do new, but always in conversation with an age-old history.

SYDELL: So now, I'm inside the museum lobby, and it has the angled walls that are pretty characteristic of Daniel Libeskind's architecture. But I take a walk through the museum.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SYDELL: Now, here, I have come upon some more conventional-looking galleries. In this one, Andy Warhol's portraits of well-known Jews hang on rectangular straight up and down walls. Now, Stacy Silver says they told Libeskind they wanted some traditional gallery space.

Ms. SILVER: The galleries are meant to be functional in that we can actually hang art and show great works whether it's small drawings or very large photographic installations.

SYDELL: For the most part, critics and the community have been kinder to Libeskind's San Francisco building than they have been to the one he did in Denver. L.A.Times critic, Chris Hawthorne.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: You sort of 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.

SYDELL: Hawthorne thinks what made the difference was the client. The Denver Art Museum gave Libeskind a lot of freedom. The CJM was a project with both financial and physical limitations.

Mr. HAWTHORNE: The art of architecture is really the art of constraint. 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 coming back and producing a design and then getting it built. It's about negotiating a whole series of constraints and challenges, whether those have to do with budget or site or the community.

SYDELL: 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.

Mr. LIBESKIND: I don't design for the critics. You have to design something that you believe in, and controversy may be part of it. I'm not one of these architects who want to design a building that everybody just shakes their head. We know from history that the buildings that are more criticized are the buildings we love the most.

SYDELL: In fact, since the Denver Art Museum opened the Libeskind wing two years ago, attendance has gone up despite the critics. This is the first time the Contemporary Jewish Museum has had its own building, so it's too soon to tell what impact Libeskind's design will have on attendance. But if the economy continues on its downward trajectory, the number of people who visit museums could go down altogether. It will most certainly mean we won't be seeing any new extravagant buildings in the near future. Laura Sydell, NPR News San Francisco.

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