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Monday, July 01, 2013

Clyfford Still Museum

Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado, by Allied Works, 2011

One of the highlights from a recent trip to Denver for the AIA Convention was definitely the Clyfford Still Museum, designed by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works. The rectangular box sits in the Civic Center area, directly next door to Daniel Libeskind's 2006 addition to Gio Ponti's 1971 Denver Art Museum; the latter is visible across the street in the photo above. The Still is like an ocean of calm in the maelstrom, looking inward as its immediate neighbor explodes outward.

That the Still is an introverted museum is fairly clear from the outside, given the primarily solid walls and the few windows that can be found on any of the four faces. These openings range from clear glass (the smaller openings) to wood-screened apertures that are much larger; the entrance bridges these two, with wood slats layered in front of full-height glass walls. The concrete walls are not just solid, they are textured, accentuating their depth and solidity, and giving the impression (even from across the street) that they have been worked by hand.

Up close, the concrete skin has an even more pronounced profile, but one that is irregular—in terms of the spacing of the vertical projections, their depth, and their roughness. One can only wager how the formwork was arranged and removed; the latter seems to have taken concrete along with it, something that must have pleased Cloepfil, making a richly varied surface. The wood slats give a hint at the formwork...are they the same width as the strips above? Are they reused from formwork? I doubt there is a one-to-one relationship, but the two work together in terms of dimensions and rhythm. And it should be noted that the first tangible non-visual sensation of the building is the smell of wood when passing by the slats near the entry.

The textured concrete walls continue inside, giving museum-goers a chance to rub their hands along them. Like me, one does not need a deep knowledge of Clyfford Still's art to appreciate the architecture and to see the relationship between one and the other. The building's concrete and plaster walls, wood floors, and open precast concrete ceiling create a calm setting for the paintings, most of which have a vertical orientation like the textured concrete. What is most unexpected about the museum's layout is the complexity of space: it flows from one gallery to another over the walls and under the skylights. Glimpses can be made from gallery to gallery through openings that visually connect the spaces and give light numerous paths throughout the museum.

Cloepfil explains the building and site as "a place of refuge from the intense light of central Colorado." Further, in regards the upper-floor galleries: "Overhead, an open lattice of concrete unites the body of the building and offers illumination and connection to the atmosphere of the city. The galleries respond to the evolving character of Still’s art, changing scale and proportion, while varying the intensity of light."

Another surprise is found in the exterior terraces that are found at the southwest and northeast corners of the museum. They are situated behind the wood-slat openings that turn their respective corners (see the fourth photo for exterior view of below terrace). Like the olfactory experience at the entrance, these spaces are rich for the senses. They offer the museum-goer a break from Still's paintings, but also a chance to look at the surroundings through the wood slats; perhaps this is a way to see the world through Still's eyes, a wood filter that abstracts the surroundings into color and vertical lines.

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