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Alexandra Lange

Speechless


My mother has been sorting through my grandfather’s studio (he was the assistant director of the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth, as well as the college designer). In one of many small drawers we found a trove of unsent postcards, including a howler of the pentagram-shaped hotel at the Syracuse Airport. Most of the others were dull scenic views of Vermont and New Hampshire. Then there was this. When I saw it I thought, “What a stylish prison. Could it be (Paul) Rudolph?” I didn’t think Eero Saarinen had ever designed a prison, but those slit windows look a lot like his dormitories for Penn.

I flipped it over to find that it is “the new Denver Art Museum.” You know, the building that Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 shard is but an addition to, and which lurked in the background of all the new photography. It was designed by Gio Ponti, founder of Domus and better known as a tastemaker, and opened in 1971. Other photos I have seen of it made it look good, in a western fort sort of way, a late modern attempt at regionalism, and like it had become part of the city fabric, albeit a glowering one. But this…this is what gives modernism a bad name.

Maybe the entrance is OK, with a perky gift shop brightening up the Corbusian glass entrance pavilion, and (I assume) a little sculpture behind that hemicycle wall. That looks like a museum. But the rest of it is just so speechless. So unfriendly. In the abstract it is not a bad building, and I could go on about the way the slot windows are set in the wall, the neo-castellation of the top and popped-out windows at the top. It’s very old-fashioned in architecture circles to want buildings to speak to their use, but I think this is a perfect example of why that is not such a heretical idea.



Posted in: Museums

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Alexandra Lange Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

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