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Modernizing Gio Ponti’s fortress-like art museum

The North Building at Denver Art Museum will close for renovations on November 19

Denver Art Musuem north building Photo via Flickr

There’s plenty of gorgeous museum architecture in the U.S. and around the world, but you’ll seldom find something like the North Building of the Denver Art Museum.

The only U.S. work by renowned Italian architect Gio Ponti, the 1971-built structure was appropriately dubbed a “fortress for art” by James Sudler, the Denver-based architect who collaborated with Ponti on the project.

At seven stories tall, it’s unusually vertical for an art museum. But one look at its facade of irregular windows and over a million glass tiles should be enough indication that this is no boring office tower.

A local landmark for nearly half a century, the North Building will soon close to begin a $150 million renovation that will add a total of 33,000 square feet, a fact that’s sure to leave some preservation-minded architecture fans wondering: How much of Ponti’s original design will change?

Work on the long-planned revamp will kick off in November. According to Boston-based firm Machado Silvetti, who teamed up with Denver’s Fentress Architects on the renovation, construction documents are 100 percent done and under review.

A model of planned revamp.
Denver Art Museum

The museum had two primary goals for the project. The first is to extend the life of the Ponti building and revitalize it while “being committed to the integrity of the building and celebrating it as a work of art and architecture,” says Jeffry Burchard, a Principal at Machado Silvetti working on the project.

The second is to add a new Welcome Center—the two-story oval-shaped volume seen in the model above—that would unify the Ponti building and the jaggedy Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2006.

The current connections between the North Building and Libeskind’s 2006-built Hamilton building.
Photo via Flickr
Rendering of the courtyard leading to the new Welcome Center.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum

When asked how much of the original Ponti design will be altered, Burchard started by listing what will definitely remain: all of the articulated windows, the glass facade, the open floor plan of the galleries.

The big changes will be in the circulation. “As a tall museum, it’s very challenging for them to move large quantities of people,” Burchard says. Currently, there are two passenger elevators and one freight elevator. The renovation will add two more passenger elevators and increase the speed of existing elevators.

Rendering of city views from the planned terrace.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum

Another big—sexier—change: access to the roof. According to Burchard, a roof terrace was part of Ponti’s original vision. “The shape, geometry, the forms of the program on the roof will be a little different than they were when Ponti proposed it, but we’re nevertheless giving access to the views of the city on the roof.”

So why wasn’t Ponti’s roof terrace realized the first time around? Burchard has a theory: “The original program of the roof terrace was basically just a lounge, just extra space that wasn’t galleries. So one can imagine in the value engineering of things in the ’70s, they could have cut it with the plan of building a pavilion on the roof anytime in the future.”

That time has come. The new roof terrace will, however, offer some gallery space in addition to a place to lounge and take in the views.

The tower’s lower levels will also get new spaces—either added or repurposed—dedicated to the museum’s educational mission.

Rendering of the new spaces created at the North Building entrance.
Courtesy Denver Art Museum

As for the second goal of unifying the Libeskind and Ponti buildings, the new Welcome Center sandwiched between the two won’t be the only fix. Currently, when you go from the galleries on the second floor of the Libeskind building to the Ponti building, you end up at a large, double-height space with no galleries. To mitigate this disconnect, the renovation will add a new floor to the double-height space, building galleries on both levels.

“One of the main issues that was brought up very early on was how little you realized that the Ponti building is a gallery when you walk in, there’s no sign of any art or gallery,” says Stephanie Dwyer, another Machado Silvetti Principal involved in the project. “But now there will be.”

The renovation is slated to complete in 2021, in time for the building’s 50th anniversary. But it could drag on if the last third of the $150 million required doesn’t come through; the museum has so far raised just over $100 million. Now all eyes are on a bond ballot up for approval by Denver voters in November, which includes $35.5 million in infrastructure funding for the Ponti building.

“We are hopeful about the potential for passage of the City GO Bond slate, that Denver voters will show their support for the city’s cultural assets to continue to be one of the country’s world-class cities and favorite destinations,” said the Denver Art Museum in a statement to Curbed. “In the event that the cultural bond does not pass, the project will move forward—albeit with an altered scope and a longer timeline.”