Flinging open the windows of perception, Denver's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, defeats almost every kind of expectation.
The new building – constructed next door to the original castlelike structure designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti – has a striking bolt-from-the-blue presumption that brings with it an elation few new buildings can generate.
Spiked, cantilevered, and crystalline in form, the Hamilton reflects the mountain environs Mr. Libeskind says inspired its contours. Most of the inside walls are bent inward or outward, with few right angles. There is far more to these strange contours than at first meets the eye: This museum stands for more than its obvious purpose of housing art objects.
"Of course, this museum is about the human endeavor – it is about art," Libeskind said in a phone interview, "and it is about the world beyond the obvious. This building is rooted in the ground, and it is open to the sky ... and it is about light – and not just the physics of light (which, of course, is part of architecture), but it is also about the light that shines in your soul, to be in communication with the world, with time, and with history."
On the first floor, the broad granite stairway leads the eye in an awe-inspiring upward spiral to galleries on the next three floors, on to a slanted skylight in the distant ceiling, suggesting the reverent grace of a great cathedral, the natural wonder of a chambered nautilus, and the exacting upward striving necessary in climbing mountain paths. The metaphor is unmistakable – this is the light that draws us, a guide and the prize of all human striving toward meaning.
The circular movement upward toward the light was a decision made to express the ineffable around us, Libeskind said. "The world is not just here by itself. I am not exceptional in [believing] this – I think every person who thinks and who experiences the world knows there is more to reality than the physical, visible space. [The spiritual] is in the experience of life.... I think [spiritual meaning] is a global and universal aspiration."
For Libeskind, the Hamilton Building "speaks of the indestructibility of the human spirit and the inventiveness of art...." Constructing a building to house and help people better understand the art in it is an act of hope, he said.
"Architecture is about life, the affirmation of life, and it is about home, and it is about the perspective of a horizon that goes beyond the obvious," he explained. "It can be universally experienced. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you can share through architecture that greater sense of purpose of the human home in the world."
Libeskind's aesthetic includes capturing something profound in a place, its indestructible quality – the quality that endures through centuries, he said. The architecture of the 21st century is "not just being satisfied with technique and glittering facades. It is about human beings. It is about intimacy, it's about conversation, the new architecture. It's not about anonymity, either, but it is about intimate spaces. Architecture can provide that, can provide something that really is unprecedented, giving you a new freedom. I know that word is often used in a rhetorical way. But I mean [the new architecture is about] giving you the freedom to see in a new way, to look from a different angle, or to look up – at a skylight."
The crystalline form of the new building provides many intimate spaces. Turn a corner and an inverted-roof angle drops down over a sculpture by Kiki Smith called "Genevieve and the May Wolf," almost insisting that you stop and study this life-size piece of a woman and a wolf.
Many other works also find a new vigor in the Hamilton's evocative nooks and crannies – like birds that hang their nests in impossible mountain crevices. The Hamilton fosters works of modern and contemporary art, requiring visitors to rediscover the mystery and marvel of the creative spirit behind the works.
The Hamilton does have its critics who believe it does not serve the art collection well. Indeed, there are exhibits that don't work. Some of the 19th-century art appears out of sync with its futuristic surroundings. Then, too, some viewers prefer traditional spaces, believing that the building in which art is shown should not compete with the works within its walls.
But the controversy surrounding the Hamilton seems misplaced. So much of modern and contemporary art defies the eye and preconceived notions about beauty and truth, and demands that the viewer learn to question, think, and see anew. And so does this new building.