Wednesday, July 22, 2009

D.A.M. Misbehaving

Denver Art Museum "self-destruction" (photo by Richard Bryant, AIA)

The following is a letter written by Corvallis architect Richard Bryant, AIA to Ned Cramer, editor-in-chief of Architect magazine. Dick returned recently from a trip to Denver, where he had the opportunity to visit the new addition to the Denver Art Museum (the Frederic C. Hamilton Building) designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind and Davis Partnership Architects. Completed less than three short years ago, Dick was astonished to find the Hamilton Building already requiring extensive repairs to its exterior envelope.(1) He was previously unaware that the iconic building was so flawed in its execution.


After all of the hype in the architectural press, the new Denver Art Museum was high on my priority list of “must see” projects.

Much to my surprise, the building interior and exterior was awash in scaffolding, plastic sheets, construction equipment, water collection devices, and construction “re-workers”. This building has literally been tearing itself apart for several years.

After all of the adulation heaped on this building, it seems only reasonable for responsible architectural journals to also explore the flaws of a building when they appear.

I have always been a believer that the architectural press has one single purpose in life – to inform the profession and the public about architecture. To inform, the architectural press must explore and report on all of the important aspects of a building. Warts often accompany beauty and function. Just covering the design and ribbon-cutting ceremony does a disservice to the architectural profession, contractors, and the public.

Just think how helpful it would be if architects, contractors, and future building owners could see what technology and details actually failed on this building. Is this failed building not a prime teaching example that can be effectively used to help instruct students, licensed architects, and contractors alike? I believe the answer is clearly – yes!

Surely you must have a photographer in Denver who could take a few photographs from the sidewalk as the starting point for a report on what has happened to this building since it “opened” to the public and the elements.

Richard Bryant, AIA

The enclosure failures are pervasive (photo by Richard Bryant, AIA)

Why hasn’t news of the D.A.M.’s shortcomings circulated more widely in the architectural press? Shouldn’t the work of an architect who aspires to stardom be subject to more comprehensive scrutiny and analysis? As Ned Cramer himself wrote in 2006, Architect magazine prides itself for portraying architecture “from multiple perspectives, not just as a succession of high-profile projects, glowingly photographed and critiqued, but as a technical and creative process, and as a community.” Dick Bryant’s appeal is precisely consistent with Architect magazine’s editorial stance. Whether the magazine will bring more attention to the failures of prominent projects remains to be seen. Such a perspective has more conspicuously been absent in today’s architectural press.

Sadly for the Denver Art Museum, the legacy of Daniel Libeskind’s gratuitous and tortured geometries(2) may be an endless battle with the Mile High City’s weather.

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building by Studio Daniel Libeskind, pre-scaffolding, tarpaulins, and buckets (photo by Archipreneuer a.k.a. Adam Crain)

According to Dick Bryant, the problems with the Denver Art Museum all seem to be related to the exterior skin: metal wall panels and the roofing system. It was hard for him to tell if the problems were the result of poor construction execution, or design errors, or a combination of both. There did appear to be serious expansion stress problems.

(2) I've never been a fan of Libeskind's work, primarily because he disingenuously rationalizes the use of the same formal language on his prominent projects. In other words, he will cite inspiration from disparate influences peculiar to each project and yet the end result is invariably the same: acutely angled, crystalline forms with linear windows rendered like randomly drawn lines on the exterior surfaces. Why is the aesthetic of the addition to the Denver Art Museum so similar to that of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto or the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco? The answer: because that's what Libeskind does; it’s his signature look.


Anonymous said...

What's the problem, didn't Frank Loyd Wright have a signature look too?!

Randy Nishimura said...

Good point. However, my problem with Libeskind is that his aesthetic's primary premise appears to be solely visual whereas Wright founded his "organic" architecture on fundamental principles related to technology, lifestyle, function, and the natural world. For projects of different types, Wright's work was seldom the same: his contemporary designs for the Usonian Jacobs house and the Johnson Wax headquarters hardly resemble one another, and with good reason: their respective programs, sites, and scales are vastly different. Libeskind's work of the past couple decades has consistently featured jagged, skewed, metallic, crystalline forms for various project types: from his museums to his project for a pre-fabricated luxury house. Zippy designs, yes, but seemingly shallow in conception.