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Abstract Expressions

In modernist architecture, the Self meets Silence and Light. Right?

Slightly oblique view of the southwest terrace inside the museum as it appeared on an overcast September day. Credit: Catesby Leigh

I was in Denver for a couple of days last month and made a point of seeing the Clyfford Still Museum in the city’s cultural district. An architect friend had enthusiastically recommended I do so. I am not sure I am going to send him this article.

The cultural district is an architectural menagerie. It includes the main Denver Art Museum edifice, which dates to 1971 and was designed by a celebrated Milanese, Gio Ponti (1891-1979). Seven stories tall and with two dozen façades, the somewhat disjointed structure is clad with over a million opaque glass tiles of diamond-like faceting. From some angles it resembles a castle, or maybe a surreal prison, with much of the glazing taking the form of horizontal or vertical slits. Narrow windows appear in repellent jutting frames.


Far uglier, admittedly, is the museum’s jagged, titanium and glass-clad Frederick C. Hamilton Building (2006), concocted by deconstructionist phenom Daniel Libeskind. It is situated close by a very large, pastel-colored agglomeration of rudimentary volumes of different heights, the Denver Central Library (1995), designed by the late Michael Graves. Here a lofty roof takes the form of a massive slab perched on mighty struts tilting outward in V-shaped configurations. Maybe Denverites can make sense of it.

Aerial view from the north of the Clyfford Still Museum, with the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building at left. Credit: Allied Works Architecture.

Such is the stylistically fractured context in which the Clyfford Still Museum, designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, was erected a little over a decade ago. Now in his mid-sixties, Cloepfil is not famous; he is more of a modernist architect’s architect. But he is capable of causing a stir. The very odd edifice on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle with which he reworked, and replaced, Edward Durrell Stone’s campy, kitschy, positively opera-buffa high-rise rendition of the Doge’s Palace in Venice (1964) certainly did. Cloepfil’s more recent National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus (2018) is a loopy, bright-white-concrete structure that might pass for a grass-topped abstraction of an expressway interchange. The Clyfford Still Museum is quite different from these buildings, not to speak of the other structures in Denver’s cultural district.

The museum houses almost the entire lifetime oeuvre of a single artist, Clyfford Still (1904-1980), a major pioneer of Abstract Expressionist painting. A North Dakota native who lived in different parts of the country before finally settling in Maryland, Still had no connection to Denver, which won out over a number of other cities in obtaining the right to house over 3,000 works, including 830 paintings, in a purpose-built museum. Still’s mature canvases offer heavily textured applications of masses of paint, often with a hard-edged interaction between colors.

Louis I. Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.

Cloepfil sought to engage these canvases in his museum design through extensive use of heavily textured concrete. Unlike its neighbors, Cloepfil’s museum is a low-slung, flat-topped, two-story concrete box. Because it gets most of its light through skylights rather than its largely unpierced walls, it too has a jail-like vibe about it. On its exterior, vertical ridges are the result of poured-in-place concrete oozing out between vertical wooden planks during construction. Many of these ridges were partially (and deliberately) broken with the planks’ removal, and the result is bound to remind unenlightened visitors like me of worn-out corduroy. Such striations are intended to play off Denver’s brilliant sunshine. Truth to tell, the jail vibe might have registered more strongly during my visit because it happened to be an overcast day—of which there are not many in the Mile High City. But I doubt I would have felt welcomed, no matter whether the sun was shining, by the squat, deeply recessed glassy entrance, oppressively surmounted by the museum’s massive main floor, whose exaggerated cantilever is visually perverse.

Inside, the gallery’s reception area, archives, and glass-enclosed storage facility and display cases are situated in the first floor’s subdued light. You climb a skylit staircase to the main-floor galleries, most of which—particularly those in which large abstract canvases hang—are themselves skylit. Natural light is filtered through the perforated shells of white concrete slung above these galleries and the staircase. The shells’ perforations take the form of elongated ovals that are rotated obliquely, and uniformly, in relation to the galleries’ rectilinear axes. What is most striking about the perforations is their monotony. They reminded me of the more varied plethora of oval perforations in the flame-orange Merrell hydro-mocs I’m wearing as I write this. Wonder who got the idea first!

Gallery at the Clyfford Still Museum. Credit: Allied Works Architects.

Within the galleries, whose floors are of stained white oak, we encounter more corduroy-textured concrete, as well as concrete with the un-ridged impress of wooden planks, or—within the rectilinear wall-voids serving as passageways between galleries—smooth-finished concrete. Everything is straight lines—verticals and horizontals—except for the sunscreen ovals. (A few upper-floor galleries are not sky-lit and house Still’s more figurative early work, including sculptures.) The galleries’ arrangement emphasizes picturesquely interpenetrating rectilinear spaces, so that vistas open up not just horizontally but also so as to include portions of both floors. Short walkways over double-height spaces below are deployed to this end. The museum interior displays much interlocking of structural members or masses, often involving contrasting textures or materials. The same technique is visible on the exterior, with its projecting and recessed concrete surfaces, where contrasting textures are likewise juxtaposed. This technique gives Cloepfil’s building a kind of Rubik’s Cube character which hearkens back to the De Stijl movement of a century ago.

Walking out onto one of the museum’s two second-floor corner terraces, I found myself in a confining rectangular enclosure that, with a few modifications, would make a dandy exercise space in a high-security prison. I stood on floorboards that have weathered to take on the greyish tint of the concrete running around the upper portion of the space. A rectangular bench against a gallery wall is clad with the same boards. A grassy rectangular patch lies beyond the floorboards. Thin steel posts and rails run beneath the heavy concrete along the terrace’s two “open” sides, and are combined with a repetitive plethora of wooden slats. Slat-like metal louvers cover the space. A cladding of tall cedar boards runs beneath a horizontal glazed band that admits some light into the museum. The boards provide some color, as the planting no doubt does when in season. But that amounts to mighty slim pickings in one of the weirder spaces I’ve encountered along the line. And I suspect it can get even weirder on sunny days when monotonously punctuated strands of light cover much of the space.

The amount of care given at the Still Museum to the deployment of different materials and textures—or what the pointy-heads call “materiality”—within the context of a severely reductive esthetic seems neurotic. A modernist critic praised Cloepfil’s vacuously pyrotechnic corduroy texture as “creating a much more hand-crafted esthetic,” when the real issue is the designer’s dehumanized esthetic.

In pondering the emotional impact Cloepfil intended his museum to have, we might look back to Louis I. Kahn (1902-74), whom I’ve discussed in a recent TAC commentary. Kahn, too, was very attentive to the textures imparted to poured-in-place concrete. But it’s the inner-directed, Zen-like sensibility articulated by both architects that is really striking. Kahn, famous for his mystical pronunciamenti, once called architecture “the threshold where Silence and Light meet, Silence with its desire to be, and Light, the giver of all presences.” For his part, Cloepfil stated in a video monologue around the time the Still Museum opened, “I think one of the things that inspired the design of the Clyfford Still Museum was silence.” He also went on at great length in that monologue and in a later conversation with the museum’s director about the quality and experience of light as a dominant consideration in the museum’s design, observing that “When you’re in [the museum], you’re held in a kind of visceral light and there’s an amplified sense of calm to it.” Calm of course being the meditative love child of Silence and Light.

Gallery in the Clyfford Still Museum. Credit: Catesby Leigh.

Richard Kelly (1910-1977) was Kahn’s lighting maestro—most notably at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, where the crowns of reiterated barrel vaults were sliced open to accommodate skylight fixtures. Cloepfil worked with Arup lighting whiz Brian Stacy at the Still Museum. Lighting’s importance has increased in inverse proportion to the level of formal content in modernist architecture. Skylighting enhances the sculpture halls and garden courts of John Russell Pope’s classical West Building (1941) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but it is part of a much richer, much more organically complex package. The modernist tendency is to fetishize natural light, and this is a major symptom of esthetic anorexia.

The humanist tradition has always revolved around the idealization of structure, with architecture serving not as an end in itself but rather pointing to a reality higher than itself, and higher than ourselves. This is the teleology modernist abstraction has tended to cancel. Its more refined productions typically make their appeal to the navel-gazing Self—the impious mirror-image of God, in Allan Bloom’s memorable words. Modernism’s lack of metaphysical content goes hand in hand with its formal poverty. Fortunately, a religious conversion experience is by no means required for a humanistic architectural orientation. Due respect for the evidence of the senses, combined with a healthy dose of common sense, will suffice.


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