The roots of the Denver Art Museum can be traced all the way back to the Denver Artists Club, which was founded in 1893 in Denver, Colorado. It wasn’t until 1918 that the club adopted the name Denver Art Museum and began to offer public exhibitions in the City and County Building, their home at the time. It was quite some time before the museum found a permanent home, though. In 1922, the museum moved to a house donated by the Chappell family, and remained in that location until 1948 when a building was purchased in Civic Center Park. This became the museum’s permanent home. However, growing interest in the museum and numerous donations to its collection caused a need for several expansions throughout the 20th century. These expansion projects included the South Building in 1954, the North Building in 1971, and both the Duncan Pavilion and Hamilton Building in 2006.
Following his success with the Pirelli Tower, which earned him international fame in the architectural community, Gio Ponti was commissioned to design new structures all over the world. One of the most notable of these was the North Building expansion. Ponti collaborated with local Denver architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett to create the unique tower, which has become known as one of his most famous accomplishments. Standing at 7 stories tall, the building has 24 different sides, all covered with over one million tiles of reflective gray glass. The building is said to resemble a castle, with a pierced roofline and dramatic windows of varying shapes and sizes. At the time, North Building was considered a refreshing shift from traditional museum architecture. As always, Gio Ponti had broken away from expected tradition to leave his own mark on architectural concept and design.
During construction, Ponti remained at home in Italy. He collaborated with Sudler and Cronenwett by sending drawings back and forth between the two continents, referring to this partnership as, “we three architects”. His design for the building was inspired by a combination of form and function. Ponti wanted a more practical design than was typically seen in museums at the time, where patrons were not forced to wander aimlessly across miles of floor in order to find the collections which interested them. Instead, he conceived of a vertical structure, where different groupings of art could be arranged in a more accessible manner. As he had done with his earlier Pirelli Tower, Ponti included interior walls which could be rearranged to suit the changing needs of the museum. Visitors often notice each floor of the North Building is laid out differently, and the walls are shifted periodically to house new collections.
At the same time, Ponti wanted this functional building to be a treat to the eye, and did not fail to include physical beauty in his plans. The gray tiles on the exterior of the building were chosen specifically for their ability to reflect the light of the sky. Rather than simply covering the building with tiles, however, Ponti took the process one step farther by using tiles that were both flat and pyramid-shaped. This causes light to be reflected from different angles, so that the building actually has a different appearance depending upon the weather, light, and angle at which one views the building.
Even the windows of the building did not fail to reflect Ponti’s dedication to integration of beauty with function. At first glance the windows, which are composed of square, rectangle, and diamond shapes of varying shapes and sizes, may appear to be randomly placed. However, each window’s shape and style was specifically chosen according to factors both inside and outside the museum. Since sunlight can damage valuable works of art, the smaller, slit-shaped windows were placed in areas of galleries, while lobby areas contain the building’s larger windows. These large windows, on the other hand, were strategically placed to provide panoramic views of the city and the Rocky mountains in the background.
The 210,000 square foot North Building provided, for the first time ever, the space necessary to display the museum’s entire collection. Until the openings of two other phases of expansion in 2006, it was the primary building in the Denver Art Museum complex. Today the building stands alongside the Hamilton Building and Duncan Pavilion, which were carefully designed to complement, but not overshadow, Ponti’s tower. It still houses a large portion of the museum’s collection, including textiles and design – areas in which Ponti himself was quite prolific.
Considering Ponti’s great interest in art, it seems appropriate that he would be involved in the building of a large art museum. At the time, Ponti was quoted saying of his project: “Art is a treasure, and these thin but jealous walls defend it”. It is clear that Ponti considered the building itself to be a work of art, and so it appropriately reflects the richness of the collections housed within its walls.