The Architecture – Clyfford Still Museum

The Architecture

“Still’s work, with the power of his color and contrast, the tactility of his surfaces, has never been shown in natural light. The entire body of the museum building is a source of light for his work—the fractured exterior surface de-materializes in light and shadow, the lobby presses darkness to the earth—then above, the liquid, heavy light of the galleries: light that holds and awakens the work.”

View of Museum Entrance

The following are excerpts from Dean Sobel's essay in "Allied Works Architecture: Clyfford Still Museum."

In 2006, the newly formed Clyfford Still Museum secured a 25,000-square-foot parcel of land within Denver’s Civic Center Cultural Complex immediately west of the Denver Art Museum’s then-under-construction Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Later that year, the board selected Allied Works Architecture, led by Brad Cloepfil, for the museum’s design.

Denver’s cultural complex also includes the Art Museum’s Gio Ponti designed flagship building, built in 1971, an eccentric structure designed in an almost neo-medieval style, and Michael Graves’s playfully postmodernist Denver Public Library, completed in 1995. Both of these Denver landmarks butt up against various Beaux-Arts civic buildings that align along Civic Center Park. During the selection process, I remember Cloepfil suggesting he would add what he felt this campus needed most—“some silence.”

Photo of outside terrace with the sun shining in on the grass, by Raul Garcia

From the start Cloepfil focused his attention not strictly on Still’s art but moreover on an understanding of “where these paintings came from.” Still spent the first forty years of his life in the Northwest—the extraordinary topographies of Washington State, the Columbia River Gorge, Alberta, Canada, and other regions where Still resided until 1941 (and places he would revisit often). Cloepfil, born, raised, educated, and based in Portland, Oregon, was keenly familiar with these regions and their natural sensations, textures, and rhythms, and had built structures throughout Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Staircase in Clyfford Still Museum

It’s instructive to remember that in the years since Still’s death in 1980, the proportions for museum galleries have swelled. Many new museum designs were boasting soaring ceiling heights over expansive (and sometimes irregular) spaces. This would have seemed unusual to artists showing their works in the 1950s. Installation photographs of the rooms within the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, where Still, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko first showed their classic works, suggest these artists were accustomed to having their paintings dominate the viewer’s field of vision. In this way their art works, particularly when seen in groups, could create environments in which viewers no longer “peeked” into their paintings but, rather, became a part of them.

These ideas about directness, intimacy, and proportion (all of which deal with questions of ideal viewing conditions) became driving concerns behind the design of the Clyfford Still Museum, whose largest gallery measures about 1,200 square feet, with a ceiling placed, by today’s standards, at a modest twelve to sixteen feet above the floor.

Photo of The Making Space at the Clyfford Still Museum, by Justin Wambold.

The quality of light, not just in the galleries but in the entire building as a whole, is the essential characteristic of the museum, even more defining than the 4,000 cubic yards of textured concrete that Cloepfil cast into the earth. The evenly dispersed natural light that fills the exhibition rooms not only presents Still’s canvas surfaces in the most compelling and truthful way; the gentleness of the daylight also enlivens the senses as visitors move through the variously proportioned spaces.

Ceiling detail, Clyfford Still Museum

“[Cloepfil’s designs] form a defining body of work within recent architecture, in which processes, an emphasis on craft, and a sensitivity to light and material have replaced the flamboyant iconicity of many international architects.”

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