Denver, the Mile High City, is actually a city of the plains. That was the crucial realization that led architect Brad Cloepfil, AIA, of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore., to design the new Clyfford Still Museum as a solitary object sheltered behind a screen of sycamore trees, like a homestead found in the windswept flatness that stretches out to the east, north, and south of the site. This 28,500-square-foot monument is now the permanent home for Still’s quintessential brand of American Abstract Expressionist works.

The Still Museum houses more than 800 paintings and more than 1,500 works on paper that the artist left to his estate. Still, who died in 1980 at age 75, was a difficult man and a complex painter who spent the last two decades of his life in near seclusion in rural Maryland, having essentially withdrawn his work from the gallery system. His will reserved the rest of his estate for whichever city would build a purpose-built structure to permanently house his—and only his—works. In 2004, the City of Denver and some of its leading citizens pledged to do just that, and have raised $32 million to date for the building’s construction. The newly formed Clyfford Still Museum selected Brad Cloepfil in a limited competition in 2006. The 2008 recession led to a construction slowdown, as well as a 10 percent reduction of the building’s remaining mass—a basement level had already been eliminated. The museum opened in November 2011 after selling four canvases—a move that required some legal wrangling since the initial bequest prevented any sale of Still’s works—for a net income of a little over $80 million, providing itself with an instant endowment.

Still never lived in and perhaps never even visited Denver, but he was “a man of the plains,” says museum director Dean Sobel. The artist spent his youth moving back and forth between Washington State, North Dakota, and Alberta, Canada, and his early, figurative work displays men and machinery trying to tame those environments. As Still moved into abstraction—a development that the museum’s opening exhibition illustrates—his canvases maintained “the sense that there is always an individual standing against a landscape,” Sobel says, whether of the plains or of the urban verticals of San Francisco and New York, where he spent much of the ’50s. Fields of colors opened up with vertical “zips” or interlocked with hooklike forms became his signature.

It is not difficult to find echoes of these shapes in the building’s design, though Cloepfil claims that such references were unintentional. A simple form composed of poured-in-place architectural concrete whose surface the architect manipulated to catch the strong light that shines over 300 days a year in Denver, the structure lifts a skylit floor of galleries over a base of offices, open storage, educational exhibitions, research and conservation labs, and a small lobby. The second-level galleries are rectangular, and many open up to one another with double-height slot corridors, so that you always see the paintings within a landscape of concrete walls and evenly lit spaces. The light is filtered through a cellular concrete ceiling screen whose geometry is biased toward the north. Incandescent fixtures supplement this natural wash in the galleries.

The galleries can display between 60 and 80 canvases at one time, though the inaugural exhibition fits 110, and much of the remainder of the collection is visible to the public in the storerooms, from behind a glass wall. Many of the paintings are still unstretched and rolled. A small research room on the ground floor will make more works available to scholars. Because of the adjacency of the Denver Art Museum, there are few of the other services you might expect, such as a café or a bookstore. This is a shrine and treasure house for a great artist’s work, no more and no less.

That quality of being a mausoleum is in evidence on the exterior, a solid and inward-turned volume that stands in contrast to the exuberance of the adjacent Daniel Libeskind–designed Hamilton Wing of the Denver Art Museum, but that also condenses the forms of the institutional buildings and skyscrapers of the surrounding city. Cloepfil, working with landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, deliberately planted a grove of sycamore tree on the building’s exposed north side, as if sheltering it from the winds, but also so that, when the trees are mature, one’s view of the structure’s first level will be filtered through the trees. This is not a display of architecture, but a marker to the presence of art, a container for light and image, and a moment of art in the middle of America.

Project Credits

Project Clyfford Still Museum, Denver
Client Clyfford Still Museum
Architect and Interior Designer Allied Works Architecture, Portland, Ore., and New York—Brad Cloepfil, AIA (design principal); Chris Bixby, AIA (project lead); Dan Koch, AIA (project architect); Brent Linden, Susan Barnes, Robin Wilcox, Scott Miller, Chelsea Grassinger, AIA, Emily Kappes (project team)
Mechanical and Electrical Engineer Arup
Structural Engineer KPFF
Construction Manager Romani Group
General Contractor Saunders Construction
Landscape Architect Reed Hilderbrand
Lighting Designer Arup—Brian Stacy
Size 28,500 square feet
Cost $15.5 million (construction cost); $29 million (total cost)

Materials and Sources

Architectural Concrete Reginald D. Hough, FAIA
Building Envelope Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Exterior Cladding
Stained western red cedar window and terrace screens; Custom board-formed architectural concrete walls
Flooring Ground and polished concrete; Stained white oak
Furniture Allied Works Architecture (lacquered reception desk and retail kiosks, wood and glass staircase, wood exhibit casework, steel gallery benches, and lectern)
Glazing Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope (skylight)
Litelab Corp. (gallery down lights)
Cast-in-place architectural concrete
Walls Stained western red cedar wall cladding
Windows and Doors Dynamic Architectural Windows & Doors (stained mahogany windows and doors); SkyLine Sky-Lites (skylight)