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The Rebirth of Gio Ponti's Denver Art Museum Tower

The prolific Italian scholar Gio Ponti designed everything from furniture to tableware, clothing, espresso machines, churches and skyscrapers. "He works non-stop," Lisa Licitra Ponti once commented on her father's prolific career spanning more than 60 years. He was the architect of the Pirelli Tower in Milan in 1958, which was hailed as a symbol of Italy’s post-war economic recovery and built more than 100 other buildings in 13 countries. But he only designed one building in the United States: the Denver Art Museum, which was completed in 1971, eight years before his death at the age of 87. The idea is to create a unique home for the museum's growing art collection. It was then placed in a pile of dilapidated small buildings. Ponti promised to the trustee to build an iconic building with a "unique and unique appearance". This "unprecedented" thing will help Denver surpass its image as a bull city. It delivered: the $6 million multi-story fortress was covered with 1 million gray glass mosaics, an unexpected and weird addition to the city’s skyline. High-rise museums were not new at the time, but for a huge city like Denver, it was a bold concept. "I think Denver is ready for this building," said local champion and Ponty contributor architect James Sudler when the design took shape. "The city is constantly evolving culturally and aesthetically." The locals welcomed the project with a mix of pride and ridicule. According to the New York Times, some critics criticized the building as "an Italian castle wrapped in aluminum foil" and "a cheesy setting made for Hamlet." San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic Allan Temko dislikes reflective facades, calling the museum "the largest reversible bathroom in the world." The historian Thomas Noel wrote in the 1997 book "Architecture of Colorado" that the project was "doomed to fail because its exterior walls make it look like a fortress, protecting the spoils of war from the tribes." Infringement.” Half a century later, Ponti’s design has not lost its power of surprise and pleasure. This is especially true after Boston's Machado Silvetti and local company Fentress Architects collaborated on a two-year, $150 million renovation and expansion. From the beginning, the architects were determined to retain Ponti's quirky design features, even if they made the necessary updates, including new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. The most striking is a two-story, 50,000-square-foot glass-wall welcome center that will feature two restaurants (a full-service Ponti and a fast-service Café Gio) and flexible event spaces. Originally scheduled to be unveiled last summer before the pandemic, the renovated Ponty Building, renamed in honor of donors Lanny and Sharon Martin, finally reopened on October 24.

How Ponti Came to Denver

Ponti was not the first choice for the design museum, not even the second choice. In 1964, when plans for the new building were hatched, the obvious choice was Sadler, who served as a museum architect on the board. But the board realized that hiring a bigger name would help improve the agency's national image and decided to appoint a "design consultant" as an equal partner to cooperate with Sudler. Sudler designed several modern buildings in the city, including a federal office building and a Ponti-inspired courthouse, and initially rejected the arrangement. ("My pride was hurt," he recalled). But he was very interested in the idea and made a short list of candidates. Sudler first contacted I.M. Pei, who previously designed the Mile High Center and Zeckendorf Plaza in Denver. But I.M. Pei rejected this task because the basic shape of the building has been predetermined by the size of the small site and the gallery. Otto Bach, the museum's curator at the time, retained full control of the internal space and expected each gallery (two square galleries on each floor) to reach 10,000 square feet, which he believed was the beginning of fatigue. Previously the best size for regular museum visitors. Sadler's second choice, Le Corbusier, also rejected the proposal. Sudler finally asked Ponti for help, who met him in Milan in 1957 while the Pirelli Tower was being built. "He was just an amazing person," Sadler recalled in an interview in 1975. "He was not a selfish person." Ponty was eager to design a building in the American West—surprisingly his first. A museum—accepted this proposal, even if he only designed the exterior of the building. After exploring Denver, Ponti returned to Milan, where Sadler and his partner Joal Cronenwett joined his preliminary design meeting. "We all communicated through painting and illustration in bad Italian and English," Cronenwett recalled in 2020, a year before his death. "Participating in work meetings in Italy is a great benefit, because the phone calls are made via submarine cables, and Gio is very comfortable in his office and at home. We were not interrupted, we worked specifically for this project."

You don’t ever see a solid mass, even though that’s what the building is. That’s the work of a genius.

Ponti accepted the challenge, even considering the limited scope of the project. “If its control is limited to the outside,” wrote Taisto Mäkelä, author of Gio Ponti in the western United States, “Ponti intends to make the most of it.” Starting from the basic form, with two square towers connected together, Ponti designed what he called The "ribbon" façade consists of 28 different surfaces covered with gray pyramid tiles. Cronenwett suggested adding some flat tiles, "to provide the visual interest of two large areas, otherwise it would be boring." Ponti scholar Maristella Casciato compared the facade to "origami, just like origami." The jagged windows are designed to provide visitors with a framed view of the city and mountains, and also help to break through the huge exterior wall. The result is a building that looks much smaller than it actually is. "You will never see a solid mass," Int. Jorge Silveti said. Vice. AIA, "Although this is this building. It is a masterpiece of genius."

Adding an Ampersand

For Silvetti, embarking on the renovation has been something of a dream project. With his longtime partner, Rodolfo Machado, Intl. Assoc. AIA, Silvetti has carved out a niche designing sensitive additions to historic museums: the Asian Art Study Center at the Ringling Museum of Art in Florida, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine, and the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. But to refurbish a Ponti building—that was a special opportunity. Though Silvetti never met Ponti, he’s long had a “personal attachment” to his approach. “When you look at Ponti’s work,” Silvetti says, “he’s an anti-manifesto type. He’s eclectic in the most positive sense of the word. He’s versatile, non-dogmatic. There’s no ‘Ponti style,’ and that’s true of our work as well. We’re not dogmatic about form. We take on almost any challenge and then try to address that challenge.” Silvetti was the clear choice to oversee the project, says Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s German-born director. “He’s really somebody whose knowledge of Ponti is so deep and detailed,” he says. “He knows every tile that Ponti ever designed, and he has a lot of respect for Ponti’s architecture.” Both Silvetti and Heinrich wanted to retain as much of the Ponti design as possible. For example, many cell phone glass tiles need to be replaced on the exterior of the building, but the museum ran out of most of its replacement inventory long ago. The Corning Glass Factory (now Corning) that produced the original tiles refused to copy them, so Machado Silveti worked with Fentress and the engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger to contract companies in China, Japan and Germany to design the possible alternatives. Finally, AIA director Machado Silvetti and Stephanie Randazzo Dwyer said that the tiles made for Bendheim in Germany are the closest to the original in terms of color, texture and outline. In order to make the building more energy efficient, the architects replaced the narrow double-glazed windows with three-layer laminated glass and a thermally broken frame, all 270 windows. They modified one of the most innovative features of the structure: vertical lighting for night lighting. Hidden behind the overlapping portion of the exterior wall, the system has been in disrepair for a long time. The new low-consumption LED version now reproduces the expected Ponti effect. The original plan for Ponti included a rooftop restaurant and lounge for museum members; these features were eliminated due to budget constraints. Although the architects did not resurrect these ideas, they expanded the seventh floor to include additional gallery space (for the museum's extensive collection of Western American art) and two outdoor terraces that will be open to visitors and provide expansive views of downtown. Denver and distance. Rocky Mountains. Machado Silveti was careful not to extend the extension to the original roof parapet due to its unique grabs and cracks (Cronenwett calls them "skylights"). Silveti's "surgical" solution, as he said, may have sacrificed a few square feet, but kept Ponti's jagged roofline.

With the zigzag addition of Libeskind and the Ponti tower, what you need is a structure that can bridge the two forms. You don't need another magnificent form of star architect, you don't need something to compete. You must use the commercial sign between the two buildings.

The annual number of visitors to the museum was approximately 150,000 after the opening of the Ponty Building in 1971, and had risen to more than 700,000 before the pandemic. Obviously this building needs a new set of elevators, but where to put them? An early idea, adding them to the exterior, would alter the original architect's design. Machado Silvetti and Fentress decided to use the "revolving space" (originally a small living room) between the galleries for two new elevator shafts, directly adjacent to the existing elevators. "I think this is the perfect solution," Heinrich said. "It won't change the role at all." The most important change to the museum is the shape of the new two-story Sie Welcome Center by Machado Silveti and Fentris. This requires the removal of a part of the pre-Ponti museum, the 1954 Bach wing, which has been used as a museum in the last years Comedor. The Welcome Center in the city center will serve as the new entrance to the Ponti building. (The original entrance, an oval stainless steel tube that was closed in the 1980s, has also been restored and will be used for school groups.) Machado Silveti de Ponti, another unrealized element It is based on the inspiration of the visitor center design. Museum: oval auditorium. The architect used an oval shape - scoop and entry for the roof line - to help "offset the stiffness of the building a bit," Silvetti said, using 52 curved glass panels as the exterior wall of the welcome center. The transparency of the structure is in stark contrast to Ponti Castle and highlights how the art museum has evolved over the past 50 years, from protected vaults to community centers for learning and participation. Addition also helps to visually connect the Ponty building with Daniel Libeskind's spotty (and controversial) addition to the museum in 2006, as well as the graves of Michael Graves (Michael Graves). Denver is visually connected. By providing a justification for such a prominent addition, Silveti "played a trick" during an initial design meeting with Heinrich and other museum officials. Recalling a Cézanne painting "Still Life with Water Bottle, Milk Jug, Bowl and Orange," Silveti asked his staff to prepare two slides: one is the original painting and the other is the orange removed by Photoshop. "First, I showed them the paint without orange," he said. "Obviously, something is missing." Painting is boring, it is a collection of random objects. "Then I showed the original painting in orange. It is the smallest object, but it is the only colored object. It is located in the center of the painting. It blends everything together." "George said, 'What I need was an orange,'" Heinrich recalled. "This is how you see the Welcome Center. He said, "With the zigzag addition of Libeskind and the Ponti tower, what you need is a structure that can unite the two forms. You don't need another form of flashy star architect, you don't need something that can compete. You need the commercial sign between two buildings. `He is absolutely right. "

Ponti's Moment

Heinrich was not always so fond of the Ponty building. When he first saw it, when he came to Denver to attend the opening ceremony of the Libeskind bond, he was taken aback. "I think what? This is a museum? It doesn't look like a museum." Darrin Alfred, the museum's director of architecture and design, had a similar reaction when he first saw it in the mid-1990s. "I don't know much about Ponti," Alfred said. "At the time, Ponti wasn't very well known in the United States. He didn't know what to use to build this building. He really didn't understand." is no longer the case. Today, Ponti has some important moments. Taschen has just published a 572-page monograph on architectural projects. The 2020 exhibition at the MAXXI Museum in Rome highlights Ponti's architectural works and displays his original model for the Denver Art Museum. In 2018, an exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris showed the reconstruction of some of the designer's most famous interior designs. Now, for the reopening of the Denver Art Museum, Alfred has curated a new exhibition: "Gio Ponti: The Designer of a Thousand People." It will display many items from the museum's architecture and design collection, including furniture, glass, ceramics, tableware, and architectural drawings. But the star will be the recently renovated and gleaming Ponti building: it is a work of art in itself.

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