Beyond Buildings


Rising on the Plains: The Clyfford Still Museum

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Still int RaulJGarcia

Image credit: Raul J. Garcia, courtesy of The Clyfford Still Museum.


I will be writing a full review of the Clyfford Still Museum for this publication shortly, but I wanted to touch on one aspect of the design that I think is particularly noteworthy: the way it is of its place, expresses that place, and even makes a statement about its larger landscape, without looking curvy, swervy, sodden, or even horizontal.


Still’s work embodies the American landscape. It does not represent it, nor does it even mimic its forms. Instead, his abstract paintings evoke the sweep of the open prairies where Still grew up, the compaction and upward thrust of that space in cities such as New York and San Francisco where he lived, and the undulating course of the soft land and light of the Delaware in which the painter spent the last two decades of his life. The inaugural exhibition a this single-artist museum shows how these often expansive paintings evolved out of his figures, sometimes totemic, sometimes reflecting the hard life of the High Plains, standing in the landscape.


It was not the mountain landscape of the Rocky Mountains, and it is a bit of a surprise to find all of his work, over eight-hundred canvases and fifteen-hundred works on paper, here. That is because in 2004 the City agreed to his estate’s stipulations for displaying the work, donated the site, and helped individuals raise over $35 million to create the 28,500-square-foot building. The new Museum Board then chose Brad Cloepfil as the architect.


“Denver is a High Plains city, not a mountain city,” the architect pointed out to me in a telephone conversation last week, “and that is the kind of landscape both Still and I grew up in, know and love. It is a place of strong light and long view, violent storms, and small oases.” His reaction was to create a “cellular” structure of poured-in-place concrete, carving one floor of storage and offices and a piano nobile of top-lit galleries out of what looks like a faceted rock. He inserted flanges at different intervals into the forms, creating seven distinct patterns in the walls and ceilings to catch the light in different ways. Even the perforated ceiling that filters the light is of concrete.



Image credit: Raul J. Garcia, courtesy of The Clyfford Still Museum.


When the groves of sycamore trees that surround the building on its exposed north and west sides grow in, the building will be visible only for the first ten feet. It will be like a homestead you come across on the Plains, sheltering itself from all that space. It will also be a confident monolith that answers the forms of the Gio Ponti-designed Denver Art Museum across the street and the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Wing of that Museum next door.


The Still Museum is of its landscape in three ways: it as a human answer to the horizontals and horizons of the High Plains. It is an urban monolith. It is also a place that drinks in, transforms, and creates space out of the light that blankets its site. “There is a heavy quality about the light we wanted to achieve,” says Cloepfil, and, though it is difficult to find a scientific proof of that, it certainly seemed that way to me.


The building is just a box, albeit one the architect has shaped so that its proportions are perfect, its textures alive with light, and its interiors an oasis of clear frames for Still’s gestures and forms. It is a box that does not pander to its site, nor tries to disappear. It answers it with architecture, which is to say with an articulation of a wholly human response to that place. “The figure stands behind all of my work,” Still said of his art, and now architecture of the highest quality frames that figure.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: RKress_Denver architect | Time: 12:52 PM Friday, April 06, 2012

    An interesting examination of an extraordinary building. Most descriptions have noted the care this architect gave to the galleries and the expressive nature of the building in relation to the art displayed. Mr. Betsky takes an equally accurate position by describing how this building relates to place. An often overlooked part of architecture, relating to place is too often ignored or relegated subservient to the building as a work of art in itself. Brad Cloepfil has managed to do both and much more. He has created a brutal, heavy, elegant and effervescent building all at the same time while serving the needs of the users in an uplifting and noble way. It some how is able to be a bold statement without getting in the way. Quietly strong. Thank you for your review and I look forward to your next blog.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.