This is part of a piece I wrote for the Invisible Museum’s Eye-Level late last year. The original article compared MCA and Redline as architectural experiences, relating their design choices to their very different missions. That particular issue of Eye Level never came out, and at this point, I might as well put some text up to share. Here’s the part on Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art:
To a drive-by glance, Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is a massive block of dark glass with several overhanging elements, broad angular articulations, and rectilinear protuberances, striking in a neighborhood of older structures. If one pauses, one immediately notices a clear panel, off-center in the greenish-black grid of panes, and a look down the side courtyard on the left reveals a wood-covered overhanging room, also with a clear window. Cantilevered to hang out over the side “alley,” this prominent feature helps set the tone for a building that signals institutional authority while reveling in its own design quirks.
With modest lettering indicating “MCA DENVER,” a neighbor could easily pass by without realizing that this was a museum. The current exhibitions are listed, but the signs are partially hidden behind the outside wall of an entry tunnel that spans most of the building’s façade. They are also listed vertically, so one needs to tilt one’s head sideways to read them. It’s frankly difficult to perceive this as a warm welcome, and one needs to go down a tunnel and up a ramp if one wants to learn more. One is greeted by a ticket seller before reaching the top of the ramp, so that one is standing sideways on a significant slope as one considers purchasing admission. The newcomer seems deliberately thrown off balance, and the cashier is positioned slightly above the nervous art lover.
Once one is admitted, the space opens up, with large openings linking the lower and upper floors, and the entry area feels surprisingly airy, considering the forbidding exterior. Light streams in from skylights throughout the building, and there are more large, clear windows than the MCA’s most prominent exterior face would suggest. Most of the dark glass in the building is concealed behind panels of off-white, translucent MonoPan, a polypropylene paneling with a subtly textured fiberglass skin. Air trapped between the glass and MonoPan surfaces holds heat. Indeed, Adjaye’s design wears its “Green Building” intentions on its sleeve, showcasing its structural elements, high tech materials, and straightforward efficiencies, including open columns of air that bring natural light deep into the building’s center. Efficiency is important here, because there’s a lot of air to heat, with upstairs galleries that seem to tower several stories high. Hallways are off-white canyons. A window about 12 feet wide looks down on 15th Street (this is the clear block in the opaque grid of windows one sees from the street). A nearby bench, one of very few places to sit at MCA, faces not the city view or any exhibition, but a corridor wall. White space is emphasized, and there is plenty of it. Whatever the exhibition, one never stops being aware of the building.
I was struck by MCA’s sonic architecture. Sounds carry far in its multi-story airspaces, and from the stairwell I could clearly hear conversations in galleries above and below me, distorted by echoes. The metal stairs thunder and reverberate. Tempted to tap out rhythms in the complex acoustic space of the stairwell, I became self-conscious, knowing that every tap or footstep would carry through the whole building. One could say that this creates a sort of intimacy, tying the building’s entire social space together. On the other hand, one could say that it makes a large space seem paradoxically small, with every conversation public.
The penthouse level opens up to the sky and the city with a large outdoor patio. There is a garden area, with a literally flat selection of ground-hugging plants, with very little elevation from their metal trays. I was reminded of the icons that architects use to indicate foliage in their drawings. Planted in square and trapezoidal boxes, some plantings are raised on pillars, too high to see in. These are not plants to coo over and immerse oneself in, and this is an exceptionally controlled vision of nature. Wood paneling appears both on the penthouse level and in the ground floor library, two spaces designed to connote a more intimate setting. Nature is more a reference than a presence, though, with metal surfaces and hardware clearly visible through the gaps in the vertical wooden boards. A reference to nature and to non-industrial materials is perhaps essential in an emphatically Green building, but nature feels like more like a design criterion than a friend here. A gorgeous plant would seem somehow uncouth against this backdrop.
The brightest indoor spaces are the rooftop café and a workspace for kids’ programs and art classes. The Idea Box, a sort of theater with a sloped floor and beanbags for seats, is the structure that seems to hang off the edge of the building’s outer face. A large window provides a good view of Clark Richert’s organic-geometric design for the outdoor patio, inlaid into concrete down below, on street level.
MCA is a relatively new museum that has high ambitions as a player on the international art scene. The building certainly asserts its difference and its nerve in a rapidly changing neighborhood with few structures to compare it to. Its architecture seems to suggest an institution that is deliberately, emphatically separate, and one that is oriented toward a fairly specific, sophisticated clientele. It is a very smart building. For the right audience, it is a calm, spacious, refuge of clean, spare design and controlled perception, well-suited to frame the shrewd ironies and in-jokes of contemporary art. Adjaye’s building sets a very different tone on the inside than it does from the street, and its gleaming, doorless façade helps filter out the kind of untutored public that might break the spell.
PS: Since I posted this, there’s been a huge shift in management at MCA Denver. Adam Lerner has gone to some trouble to make a broader public feel welcome, and that often means staging events that spill out into the street-level outdoor patio and the lot across Delgany. More regional artists are included than had been in the past, and Denver’s own thriving arts community is explicitly and enthusiastically welcomed. Still, the facade is forbidding, and few outside the arts community seem to know it’s there. While Denver Art Museum used celebrity architecture (Daniel Libeskind’s angular spectacle) to draw eyeballs and establish a quirky, family-friendly art amusement park, MCA’s architecture ends up suggesting an exclusive club.