Three years ago, while taking in the view from my high-rise hotel room in downtown Denver, my eyes stopped at a striking structure more like a sculpture than a building. The unfinished amalgamation of jutting angles and sloped walls would become the Denver Art Museum expansion — was my first encounter with Daniel Libeskind's architecture.
Libeskind's buildings defy the traditional vertical and horizontal hallmarks of architecture by exploding into dynamic forms that lean, spiral and intersect.
The current exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) sets out to illuminate his innovative process. The problem with the show is not the architect's awe-inspiring work but the manner of presentation, which more closely resembles a trade-show display than a museum exhibition in both installation and content. It left me wanting more.
The exhibition, simply titled Daniel Libeskind, highlights four of the architect's recent projects: the Denver Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and, of course, The Ascent in Covington, the opening of which coincided with the CAC show.
A handful of quotes from Libeskind shed a little light on the inspiration for each building, but most of the accompanying text is informative rather than interpretive.
In addition to two-dimensional, wall-mounted materials, visitors can walk around and into three "enclosures" intended to capture the flavor of the architecture. What a wonderful concept -- architecture is, after all, three-dimensional and requires more than flat drawings and scale models to grasp.
Unfortunately, the assembly of the "enclosures" lacked craftsmanship. Seams showed everywhere, edges and corners were roughly finished and plaster needed sanding, all of which made the structures look shoddy next to the beautifully crafted architectural models by Studio Daniel Libeskind. In addition, the "enclosures" were crammed into the CAC's lower second-level gallery, allowing for little space from which to contemplate them.
That said, Libeskind's fascinating projects themselves are the stars of the show. Most of us by now should be familiar with The Ascent and its slanted profile that echoes the cables on the Roebling suspension bridge. A gigantic photographic mural illustrates the building in all its white-and-glass glory.
The Denver Art Museum, inspired by the area's dramatic geology, looks as if it has been pushed out of the earth by tectonic forces. Its angular shapes recall the sandstone formations of the famous Red Rocks amphitheatre and the rugged Rocky Mountains themselves.
While these are free-standing buildings, the other two projects integrate the architect's designs into historical structures. Libeskind describes the Contemporary Jewish Museum as "a conversation between tradition and the new." Indeed, the two buildings appear melded together, as if the new was dropped seamlessly into the roof of the old.
This "conversation" becomes even more spectacular in the Royal Ontario Museum expansion, aptly called "The Crystal," in which the crystalline forms of the new building appear embedded within the original structure. A time-lapse video reveals the entire construction process from above in one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition.
The show does not, in my opinion, achieve its goal of helping the viewer understand Libeskind's distinctive creative process. But for those who admire The Ascent and want to see some of the architect's other projects, it provides a good survey.
It's regrettable, though, that it illustrates only the what and where rather than the why and how.
DANIEL LIBESKIND is on view at the CAC through May 11. Get gallery details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.