A short weekend in Denver to (finally) see this–Allied Works’ Clyfford Still Museum, built to house the works of an underappreciated abstract expressionist painter and part of Denver’s cultural center. The excuse was a show at the Denver Art Museum next door on Allied’s process work, which included study models of the Still Museum along with other work. My partner spent a couple of formative years in their office, working on this project among others, so the trip included a guided tour.
I’m biased, obviously, but the Still Museum is up there with John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation in Chicago for must-see American buildings of the last ten years. Allied’s work is as rigorous as it gets all the way through, from concept to detail, and the discipline and attention to experience throughout makes the experience truly immersive. Still’s work fits nicely into the Allied approach, which involves a long, iterative process to arrive at a spatial diagram and then a similarly patient approach to detailing in ways that make that diagram tangible as you walk through the building.
In this case, the sectional diagram emerged quickly–a set of entry and conservation spaces on the ground floor, with toplit galleries above. The plan diagram, though, went through a number of developments, finally settling around a more-or-less Renaissance nine-square grid, with circulation spaces running between square galleries. The galleries themselves use a language of concrete and white plaster to reveal what’s structural (major grid lines) and what’s installation (minor grid lines). And then the materials themselves are detailed through a set of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal grains that gives everything scale and consistency. The concrete work is as good as it gets–the walls were all set in a single pour that went non-stop for a few days, so there aren’t any pour joints. And the formwork is all board-form, with Kahn-like projections gained from beveled timber edges that give the concrete walls just enough texture and grain for the paintings to read against.
Where this gets really fun is where the grid lines intersect. L spent a good amount of time working on options for the ‘knuckles’ around the center square, where concrete beams and walls intersect. The geometry here is all about having us read the galleries as interlocking spaces, and the ‘knuckles’ go to great lengths to visually explain how the structural poche gets shared between one space and the next.
All of that sounds a bit abstruse, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t get in the way–it’s not a building that you’d need to know anything about to feel oriented in, or that you’d need to read up on to understand. It’s a simple thing done extraordinarily well, though that simplicity came about–obvious from the models next door–only through that patient search that eliminates any distraction or contradiction.
What’s most captivating about the Still Museum may be what it’s up against. The Civic Center in Denver is home to the Denver Art Museum, a collection of buildings that includes a post-modern homage to Italian castles by Gio Ponti, and a shard-o-rama by Daniel Libeskind. And, looming in the background, is Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library. Taken together these buildings share…uh…a commitment to overtly formal rhetoric at the expense of spatial and material legibility. The Libeskind in particular has the most spectacular drop-off in resolution between its form and detailing I’ve seen in a while (what happens when a complicated space without a straight line in any of its three dimensions meets a budget that allows for exactly a lay-in tile ceiling?). To walk into a set of spaces as resolved in conception and in execution as the Still Museum after wandering through galleries that were clearly the afterthoughts of a really convincing 1/32″ model is to see the difference in two ways of thinking–architecture as a vehicle for formal argument vs. form as a vehicle for an orchestrated architectural experience.
That alone is worth a trip…