In 1997, Lewis Sharp, the director of the Denver Art Museum, attended the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which turned its architect, Frank Gehry, into a celebrity and jolted museum directors all over the world into paroxysms of envy. Sharp decided that he, too, wanted the sort of building that launches a million postcards. He held a competition, which Libeskind, who was still based in Berlin at the time, entered and won. The new museum opened last year—his first completed commission in the United States.
The proper way to start studying it is to wait for a break in traffic and stand in the middle of the street, looking straight up. The building comes to a quivering point cantilevered clear across the street, as if it were about to spear the original museum, a tiled fortress designed by Gio Ponti in 1971. In its wake is a quartzlike assemblage of faceted shapes, coated in titanium panels that change color depending on the light, from a dull slate gray to a pale, diaphanous gold. “I was inspired by the light and the geology of the Rockies,” Libeskind has said, “but most of all by the wide-open faces of the people of Denver.” He has been criticized for producing a show-off museum that upstages its contents, but Sharp sees spectacle as a form of promotion for the cause of art: “The main thing I want is for anyone who approaches this building to say, ‘Wow, I want to know what’s going on in there.’”
Inside, a fantastically irregular atrium pulls visitors up the stairs toward a hidden skylight and the bright Colorado sunlight ricocheting against angled walls. It’s like hiking up through a gorge, past sedimentary layers, outcroppings, and hoodoos. Libeskind is a genius of staircases—so much so that visitors tend to bypass the gift shop, strategically positioned opposite the elevators. “We’ll have to do something about that,” Sharp says.
As I climbed, trying to make sense of the welter of diagonals, it occurred to me that Libeskind thrives on finding the most complex possible solution to a problem. “The simple glass box—these things don’t move me,” Libeskind once told me. “If a building is good, then surprise is part of the building, even if you walk into it hundreds of times.”
The galleries of the Denver Art Museum don’t attempt to hide the angled walls or the corners scrunched like those dusty, unusable places where eaves meet an attic floor. The Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called the interior “an array of the least congenial galleries for art that I’ve seen in twenty years.” And yet I found it fitfully exciting. In the tip of the building’s prow stands Quantum Cloud XXXIII, by the British sculptor Antony Gormley. A humanoid figure, lit from the side by a single vertical slash of a window, appears to be vaporizing into a brilliant haze of metal filings. This museum has two modes: frustration and exhilaration, with little in between.
Such an extravaganza in Colorado doesn’t help much in trying to divine what a Libeskind on Madison might look like. Although New York has lately managed to lure flamboyant designers, it still shackles them with strict zoning codes, merciless dollars-per-square-foot calculations, and the habits of contractors accustomed to stacking identical apartments. To get a sense of how he might deal with these restrictions, I visited the Ascent, a residential tower in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, that should be completed by the end of the year. Covington is not Madison Avenue: Putting up a fancy apartment tower there means persuading a large swath of Cincinnati’s rich to move out of lavish mansions and pay about $100 per square foot more than they would anywhere else for the privilege of living in comparatively cramped quarters in an area that twenty years ago earned renown as a national example of urban blight. That’s the perfect sort of challenge to stimulate Libeskind’s messianic spirit: the chance to redeem a city through luxury design.