Gio Ponti’s incongruously stolid Denver Art Museum sprouts a space-age appendage

Opposites Attract

Gio Ponti’s incongruously stolid Denver Art Museum sprouts a space-age appendage

In addition to heading up the renovation, Fentress Architects and Machado Silvetti also designed the 50,000-square-foot Sie Welcome Center located at the base of the Martin Building. (James Florio Photography/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

By all accounts, much of Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood was once a desolate place. Up to and through the 1980s, the southern perimeter of Civic Center Park was reputedly home to a tolerably good diner, a dry cleaner, a lot of parking lots, and one thing more: the looming frame of Gio Ponti’s 1971 Denver Art Museum (DAM), an astonishing quasi-Brutalist castle keep faced in gleaming tiles. Standing alone amid the mostly-nothing, the building must have been even more impressive than it looks today, a medieval torro plucked straight out of San Gimignano and set down at the foot of the Front Range.

Slowly at first, then all at once, things changed. First, in 1995, there came Michael Graves’s Denver Central Library, a congenial PoMo ensemble just east of the museum. Then, in 2006, there appeared DAM’s Hamilton Building, a dramatic crag of a building from Daniel Libeskind that connected to the main museum via a glazed sky bridge. Brad Cloepfil’s 2011 Clyfford Still Museum was next—rough, abstract, like its namesake’s paintings, crouching quietly to the south of the Hamilton—and now, as of last month, there comes what could be the last piece of the puzzle: the Sie Welcome Center.

The denver art museum with a circular glass extension in front
The saucerlike form of the Sie Welcome Center, with its swishing glass envelope, and a new tubular entryway embody a certain space-age optimism that contrasts Ponti’s building. (Eric Stephenson/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

It’s yet another addition to DAM, a demure ribbon of glass curling around the base of the lofty tower. The product of a double-barreled designer collaboration between Fentress Architects and Machado Silvetti, the new building complements a just-completed restoration of Ponti’s incongruous masterpiece, with the latter undertaking also directed by the (respectively) Denver- and Boston-based architects.

Both Curt Fentress and Jorge Silvetti were on hand for the opening festivities in mid-October, and both professed themselves huge fans of Ponti’s ambitious skyscraper-for-art. “Sometimes it’s gray, sometimes it’s gold, sometimes it’s green,” said Silvetti, speaking of the way the tiles pick up the changing light throughout the day. Fentress echoed the sentiment, noting that what Ponti built is “a massive wall, but he broke it down with this geometry,” animating the facade with irregular fenestration and strange, almost runic arrangements in the tilework.

Outside of a brick building at night along a lit path
The Denver Art Museum fully restored the pride of its campus—the Martin Building, designed by Gio Ponti, with Denver architecture firm James Sudler Associates. (James Florio Photography/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

The duo’s restoration has given the exterior back its luster while opening up interior spaces that had long been neglected or shut to the public altogether: A ground-level terrace (previously colonized as an outdoor smoking lounge for staff) is accessible once more, as is the rooftop, which now houses a small outbuilding (very much like one that appeared in Ponti’s original scheme) letting onto a stunning observation deck. Long-shuttered gallery windows have been uncovered, affording glimpses of the distant Rockies, and even Ponti’s original fire stairs—each level given its own punch of colored tile—have been given new life, inviting intrepid patrons to hike all the way up to the sixth floor.

A bronze sculpture in a round art gallery
The museum also spruced up, and added to, the original galleries in the Martin Building, measuring 11,000 square feet in total. (James Florio Photography/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

The Sie Welcome Center does not in any way distract from all this late-modernist splendor, but augments the Ponti building with new event spaces, ticketing, educational facilities, and more. Extending the older building’s glassed-in entryway toward 13th Avenue, the addition gives the museum a formal presence on the Golden Triangle’s main drag, as well as a more visible point of ingress on the quieter 14th Avenue, where a long gangplank projects over a new subgrade terrace toward a tubular entryway. The overall effect is to soften the tower’s hard landing, with the saucer-like pavilion topping the Center, acting as a kind of understated beacon, drawing in passersby as they waltz through the cultural district. Save for a grand sculptural stairway ascending into the saucer, the inside is similarly subdued, giving pride of place to the main exhibition spaces—each of which has been meticulously restored, with a brace of different firms (including OMA’s New York office, for the refreshed second-floor design galleries) getting in on the action.

Along curved white staircase
As part of the restoration, Fentress Architects and Machado Silvetti
inserted a curving grand staircase. (James Florio Photograph/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

It all adds up to a lot—arguably too much. During his remarks at the opening ceremony, DAM’s director, Christoph Heinrich, joked that the just-finished work represents “the last building project we’ll have to do here, at least for the next five years.” In point of fact, it might be the last project ever in the whole area. The sliver of turf between Broadway and Bannock Street is now pretty full up, and in its pitched effort to make Ponti’s building accommodate the needs of a modern museum, DAM has jammed more programming into its buildable envelope than one might have thought possible. Together with its neighboring institutions, that has turned a former Nowheresville into what might be the ultimate expression of a very recognizable urban type: the Twenty-First Century Global-City Cultural Acropolis, a model for redevelopment whose time has come and gone.

Only, there’s one catch. If the lower tier of the Golden Triangle is now yet another elephant’s graveyard of contemporary architecture, this one at least happens to be a very alluring elephant’s graveyard. To a remarkable degree, and in moments that might catch the visitor by surprise, this unlikely gaggle of buildings actually resolves into a strikingly cogent composition. At its center is the Ponti tower—bold, defiant, heroic; confronting it, the Graves, puckish and insouciant, a mannerly mocker; then Libeskind, in frantic defense, lunges into the fray; Cloepfil, a hermit, cowers and turns its back; and finally, there’s Fentress and Silvetti, their saucer a sort of referee, interposing itself between the combatants. Completing this gestural cycle, the Sie Welcome Center gives Denver a surprising, and surprisingly compelling, bit of urbanism, turning a staid high-art ghetto into a moment of genuine architectural theater.

interior of a museum restaurant with linear seating
The new museum restaurant bears Ponti’s name. The scalloped bar shelving recalls the Sie Welcome Center’s glass facade. (James Florio Photograph/Courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

Denver Art Museum
Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects
Location: Denver, Colorado
Landscape design:
Mundus Bishop
Structural & civil engineer:
MEP engineer:
ME Engineers
Lighting design:
Buro Happold
Construction manager/general contractor:
Saunders Construction
Envelope & skin consultant: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Facade manufacturer: Sentech Architectural Systems; Oldcastle Building Envelope; Vitro; Guardian; NorthGlass

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture, design, and urbanism to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper’s, Dwell, and The New Yorker online, among other publications.