Gio Ponti’s imposing Denver Art Museum is updated and expanded

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A rounded, glazed visitor center is part of improvements made by American firms Machado Silvetti Architects and Fentress Architects to the Denver Art Museum designed by Gio Ponti, which opened in 1971.


The museum is located in the heart of Denver, in an area known as the Golden Triangle. After being partially closed for years, the museum will reopen fully to the public on October 24, 2021.

Rounded visitor center is part of Denver Art Museum updates

The modifications include a new visitor center, reconfigured outdoor spaces and galleries, as well as additional space for education, events and meals. The project was designed by Boston-based Machado Silvetti Architects and local company Fentress Architects.

The art museum unveiled the renovation and expansion plan in 2016, citing the need to expand its offer while unifying its buildings and bringing them up to date. The project was largely completed last year, but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed unveiling until this fall.

Entrance to the tunnel at the Denver Art Museum
The original entrance features an oval-shaped steel tube

The original museum – a seven-story asymmetrical tower clad in shimmering tiles – was designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti and opened in 1971. It has 24 different sides and has been referred to as a “castle” in appearance.

“Over a million reflective tiles cover the exterior of the building, and its twin-tower facade has long been an iconic feature of the city,” the team said.

The Martin building
The Martin building is covered with tiles

The building was one of the first high-rise art museums, in addition to being the only completed Ponti building in North America. The architect – known for works such as the 1958 Pirelli Tower in Milan, as well as a range of furniture, housewares and art objects – died in 1979 at the age of 87.

Long called the North Building, the facility was renamed the J Landis and Sharon Martin Building.

Shimmering tiles on the Martin Building
A terrace on the roof of the Martin building

The Martin Building isn’t the only structure the architects had to consider when designing the redesign. A stand-alone, spiky addition to the museum, called the Hamilton Building, opened in 2006 with a design by American architect Daniel Libeskind.

Next to the museum is another notable piece of architecture – the postmodern-style Central Denver Public Library, which was largely created by Michael Graves.

The new museum reception center
The Sie reception center is elliptical in shape

The team said their goal was to respect the context and best honor Ponti’s original vision.

“To create the new Sie Visitor Center within the rich architectural context of Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District, it was essential for us to design a structure that simultaneously dialogues with the dynamic visual language of Ponti’s and Studio’s designs. Libeskind, while providing a connection to the museum, ”said Jorge Silvetti, director of Machado Silvetti.

The most visible aspect of the renovation project is the new Sie Welcome Center, which adjoins the Ponti Tower.

Rounded in plan, the building rises on two levels and totals 50,000 square feet (4,645 square meters). Its shape is inspired by an elliptical auditorium that Ponti had initially planned for the museum.

The visitor center of the art museum offers a breathtaking view
A view of the reception center

The upper level is covered with curved structural glass panels, each panel measuring 25 feet high and eight feet wide (7.6 by 2.4 meters). The team described the glass facade as “an unprecedented feat of engineering and the first building to use curved glass panels in this way.”

“With its elliptical shape accessible from all angles and its transparent glass facade, the Sie Welcome Center is an inviting and bright beacon to welcome all visitors,” said Silvetti.

Conservation laboratory
A conservation laboratory

Inside, the new center houses customer services, a fine dining restaurant, a casual café, an educational and event space, and a conservation lab.

In the Ponti tower, two new elevators have been installed. All galleries have been improved and a new design gallery has been created.

Interiors of the Ponti Tower at the Denver Art Museum
Interiors of the Ponti tower

In addition, a gallery dedicated to West American art on the seventh floor has been extended by 9,000 square feet (836 square meters). On the seventh level are also two new patios, where visitors can take in views of the city and the Rocky Mountains.

On the facades of the Ponti Tower, the team replaced many of the original tiles with replicas and replaced the windows with energy efficient versions.

Spiral staircase
Duncan Hall has a new grand staircase

The building’s exterior lighting was replaced with an LED system, one of the many elements that helped the project achieve LEED Silver certification from the US Green Building Council.

The original entrance to the tower, which features an oval-shaped steel tube, has been restored and will be used for large groups, such as schoolchildren.

Duncan Room
Lights inside Duncan Hall

Several additional companies were involved in the project.

OMA New York was responsible for exhibits for the museum’s design gallery, and IKD of Boston and San Francisco designed a special exhibit on the ground floor of the building. A new learning and engagement center offers “flexible playful, creative and inspired spaces” created by Esrawe + Cadena from Mexico City.

The Martin Building has shimmering tiles
Tiles sparkle on the Martin building

On the occasion of the reopening of the building, the museum will present an exhibition entitled Gio Ponti: Designer with a thousand talents. Designed by the OMA and curated by the museum’s curator of architecture, Darrin Alfred, the exhibition will feature items from the museum’s collection. The show opens on October 24, 2021 and runs indefinitely.

Located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Denver has experienced significant growth and development over the past decade. Other recent projects include a Dynia Architects hotel that has a quirky appearance and a Tres Birds multi-purpose complex that encompasses an entire city block.

The photograph is by James Florio.


Project credits:

Architects: Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects
Owner’s representative: Grundy construction management and consulting
General contractor : Saunders Construction


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