Mountain Mimickery in Denver Architecture

By: Esti Shapiro | BSA '18

Denver, Colorado is a fantastically stunning city with an excessively generous endowment of natural beauty. It makes sense that the nearby Colorado Rockies (the massive and striking mountain range, not the sub-par baseball team) are the most commonly cited source of architectural inspiration in the City of Denver. The spectacular mountain vistas that have captured the imaginations of artists and creators of all kinds, producing the likes of “America the Beautiful” and “Rocky Mountain High,” inspire designers of our built environment as well.

 Rocky Mountain National Park by Jonah Eisman

Rocky Mountain National Park by Jonah Eisman

Much like in music or visual arts, however, it is not enough for architecture to be a mere representation of its inspiration. Successful architecture must synthesize and translate a concept, maintaining an understanding of the origin at it’s core, but becoming something entirely new. Too often in Denver, mountain-inspired architecture is nothing more than cheap attempts at replicating the geometries of the front-range, with dramatically sloping facades and sharp apexes. Reproducing a mere likeness to the geometry of an environmental phenomenon at the scale of a building simply cannot evoke reactions adequate to the original. This is especially true if the inspiration is of the magnitude of the Rockies.

That being said, Denver’s statement architecture should not ignore the beautiful vistas it is endowed with. That would be a bigger disappointment than the aforementioned approach. What is deeply necessary, however, is architecture that harnesses and values the incredible natural assets available in their own right. The most successful Denver architecture is that which celebrates its mountain views, rather than tries to be one. This kind of design exists, but is often under-appreciated.

 Denver Art Museum Hamilton Building (Left) and North Building (Right)

Denver Art Museum Hamilton Building (Left) and North Building (Right)

Nowhere is this paradigm more apparent than in the two buildings of the Denver Art Museum. The museum’s original building is grossly under-appreciated by the public, in favor of the newer, flashier, Liebeskind-designed addition. The new Hamilton Building, constructed in 2006, uses dramatic triangular cantilevers and a shiny metallic cladding to imitate both the geometries and reflective properties of the mountainous rock formations. Alternatively, the 1971 North Building of the same museum by Gio Ponti is characterized by its miscellaneous apertures of seemingly odd shape and random placement from the exterior. The outside of the North Building is designed to look like a medieval castle, a bizarre post-modern tower, out of place in the center of downtown Denver. Once inside the museum, however, one understands the intentionality behind each window in relation to the galleries and art stored within. The building connects the visitors to the regional context by way of carefully framed mountain views. The largest, and especially the most horizontally expansive of the windows are almost all western-facing, towards the Rockies. This design feature, the very intentional use of aperture, allows the spectacular views available from the museum to act as a piece of art themselves. They also make use of the characteristically sunny climate in Colorado, providing daylighting opportunities as well.

 A uniquely-framed mountain view from the Denver Art Museum North Building

A uniquely-framed mountain view from the Denver Art Museum North Building

While the general public tends to be more critical of the North Building, favoring the newer construction and attention-grabbing design of Leibskind, from an architectural perspective, particularly in how the building responds to its context, Gio Ponti’s tower is far more successful than the addition. Ultimately, the argument comes down to whether the museum’s building, as an architectural object, should be an icon itself, or if the more successful museum is the one that considers its context, creating beautiful and meaningful experiences for people to wander through and view art. The strategic use of aperture in the North Building, to relate and pay respect to the Rocky Mountains is a far more honest and meaningful approach than literal imitation.