DAVID CORDARO Modernity in the Midst

Sitting back from the curb, the Clyfford Still is one of the must-see buildings in Denver. Unsuspecting and politely sitting in the shadows of Libeskind’s bizarre form, this museum by far surpasses expectations.

The Central Library by Graves, Wells Fargo Center by Philip Johnson, and the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind all contribute to the vast post-modern scene. The 16th Street Mall, while still very successful as an outdoor scape, is anything but ‘modern,’ while parking garages clad in EIFS maintain intricate detailing of false windows to provide a ‘Disney’ effect of architectural illusion.

The city itself seemed to have a very laid-back, nonchalant sensibility, as if everyone had just visited their local clinic and come to bask in the low rays at 5,000 ft. No certain sense of urgency or need permeated through the individuals I encountered. Children leisurely playing in plaza’s outside the recently renovated Union Station, couples frequenting local businesses, and a group of teenage girls dressed up for quinceañera.

Wandering through the city, the Still sat calmly behind the sharp, shard-like extrusion of Libeskind’s museum. Grasses and benches lead you up to the entry of the building, a language communicated very clearly through the exterior façade expression and cantilevering of the floor above. The doors themselves were something of interest, with vertical striations of a dark wood mimicking the verticality of the seep-and-board form concrete above. Entering, there is a clear understanding of circulation, immediately encountering a lobby and pseudo gift-shop and ticketing space. It is dimly lit, with the primary lighting sources being from nearby windows and filtered sunlight from above.

Circulation remains a key element here, as with any other museum. The guests can choose to continue upward to the galleries, or remain on the first floor. As the collection is comprised solely of the work of Still, it remains small. At two stories, the main level of the building houses educational areas among a visible storage facility, and interactive exhibitions about the life of Still and his work. Moving my way through, I circulated around the exhibitions on the ground level and made my way up the central stair. I was immediately greeted with the infamous, cast-in-place concrete ceiling. This roof is a series of seemingly parametrically derived ovals which filter sunlight down into the galleries below, eliminating harsh glare and direct sunlight into the space. Once upstairs, the beautifully articulated the exterior of the building made an appearance again inside on a few of the walls. As with the ground level, the upstairs had a very clear circulation, but wasn’t so much directive. I went around the space in a clockwise fashion, viewing the ‘brown’ work of Still as I went.

Making my way around, I came across a series of atrium, two-story spaces that provided views into the galleries below, and allowed the light to penetrate otherwise dark areas of the building. These spaces continued multiple times, and created fantastic viewing areas and areas for conversation. There is also a refreshing reprieve from the gallery and an outdoor courtyard space. While heavily screened, there were great views toward the downtown skyline and Rockies beyond.

Every space within the museum was carefully curated, and lent reference to Clyfford Still’s work. Each gallery was different in composition and aperture, but maintained a consistent lighting level throughout. The politeness and utility in materiality and use not only provides a beautiful reprieve from the immediate context, but also a beacon for the city to reference as it continues to grow.


David Cordaro studies at Iowa State University and has an interest in the efficiency of built systems. He served as a juror on the 2017 National AIA Institute Honor Awards for Architecture and AIA Twenty-Five Year Building Award. 

Datum ISU