The value of difference

Plenty has been written about the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) new(ish) addition, the Hamilton Wing, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The controversy started during the design, continued  during construction, and peaked once it was opened to the public.  Discussion continues in Denver, even now, so how does one gauge the success of such a high-profile project?

Well, I can imagine that there are attendance statistics to be pored over, the quality and caliber of exhibits that have come and gone, and perhaps more salient to the architecture profession, operating and maintenance costs to be tallied and analyzed, but sadly, I don’t have access to any of those figures. What I do have is a bicycle that frequently takes me by the building and, recently, a stream of visitors and friends who are looking for something to do in Denver.

And here is where the museum is perhaps most effective. Simply put, it is something to do in Denver. It’s a crazy building, it looks like a spaceship when you drive down 13th, and it has consistently produced ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from those viewing it for the first time. It immediately livens up the spaces and forms surrounding it by throwing them into sharp contrast. Almost as if declaring, “this is how exciting a building can look.”

New and crazy looking buildings are going up seemingly every day and I have often wondered if there is an inherent value in simply being different. So many buildings deal with space similarly; vertical walls bounding rectangular rooms that in turn are topped off by flat ceilings and roofs. Light is treated as a puncture in the wall with a view or vista occasionally framed and emphasized. They are useful and practical and they are very efficient at meeting a basic minimum standard of function but beyond that, there isn’t much more.

But the Hamilton Wing does more. It begs to be seen, explored, and discovered simply because so much of it is unexpected and unknown. When contrasted to its surroundings, there is no question about where the excitement is. But there’s a rub there, being different only works when there is a background to create such a noticeable contrast. The Hamilton Wing, as different and vibrant as it is, is solidly and inescapably grounded in our current building culture. The superficial contrast that the building creates only resonates because it is an angled line among a forest of verticals. If there were just a few more angled lines out there, the influence would lessen and the building would begin to be seen for what it is and for how it functions instead of simply viewed as a statement.

Critiquing the DAM is a complex endeavor.   For every ‘ooooh’ and ‘aahhh’ generated by the dramatic overhang on 13th, there is a befuddled stare into the vacant, narrowing interior peak of that dramatic overhang. The merits of the design are still being debated but for me, the one thing the building does accomplish is making people take notice of architecture. We can quibble with the details, but in this instance, I believe there is great value in simply being different.

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