CMP: Also a return to the idea of intimacy of viewership. You can have small spaces with big ideas. Recently spectacle has taken over. Everything became over-stimulated, larger scales—probably influenced by public art programs—but size has come to matter. There’s a proposition within MCA that size is relevant, but it's not the whole issue. It's not the point of making space: to make it is so overwhelmingly large that the human experience is completely lost. We were talking a little about churches and cathedrals.
DA: This is central. The idea at the museum is to make something that is for all the senses, not just a spectacle of the eye. It's very much about the idea that this place is a place of experience for all the senses. When you look at the building from the outside, the building is quite a mute building.
CMP: I call it black milk.
DA: Which I think is beautiful.
CMP: That’s from the poet Paul Celan.
DA: This muting is really a way, for me, of enhancing—I really love those, what I call mute, banal buildings that were in downtown. The sort of sheds and boxes, brick buildings and corrugated buildings. There's something very powerful about that, a clue to how we would make our building.
CMP: Denver is called the Brick City. There was a big fire around the turn of the century that inspired brick construction. Denver is also The City Fantastic.
DA: What do you mean by that?
CMP: In Mark Dery’s The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink he discusses the arrival of Freudian psychology alongside Coney Island and the invention of electricity. Denver is a city that comes out of that moment, where all these fantastic elements came to life. You have the historic Elitch amusement park, and you have a public service building downtown that is totally covered in lights that has the atmospherics of Coney Island. And there's a scale here too, which is not so much about the buildings being diminutive and vernacular. They are small in the landscape, but they are also fighting the monumentality of the big blue sky and the crush of the mountains.
DA: Within this there is this kind of polemic that has happened with these two art institutions that have appeared on the landscape of Denver, which define and articulate this idea of Denver now.
CMP: We share an appreciation for the original Denver Art Museum building designed by Gio Ponti. I believe it's his only American project. And David, you had a beautiful insight about it: that it was like a sundial. What you can't see anymore is the ceramic tiling on the outside of the building—if it was to be cleaned—it would have this iridescent quality. Ponti proposed all these little fantastic components that were never built, like a little auditorium structure inspired by a leaf. The building looks like a castle. It speaks to a marvelous idea. And then, of course, they—whoever They is—those They...
DA: The They, the Bad They.
CMP: Those They that are doing these things that we have to question, put the Denver Art Museum addition, this new Daniel Libeskind building right next to the Gio Ponti to, in a way, almost try to diminish the Ponti building.
DA: But I think the reverse has happened.
CMP: It put a big punctuation mark on the fact that the Ponti is so much more alive. Our building, MCA DENVER, is more interior. I was thinking about the Ponti a lot throughout this process of making MCA. Other architects including Roberto Behar, who coined the phrase Denver: The City Fantastic, are also fascinated by the Ponti building, drawn to it. There is nothing else that exists like it. I'd love to hear you connect those things.
DA: We never did speak about it, but it was actually one of the first buildings I wanted to see when I landed. It was the one I ran to. I have one of those old Ponti books, and there is one image of this museum and it's sort of silhouetted, light streaming in behind it. It looks almost like a set to a kind of fantastic—
DA: Medieval, or DeChirico-esque, like a happening, a metaphysical happening. The metaphysical for me was very interesting. So in a way, I see that building as an instrument for light.
CMP: There's a cut-away at the top where the sky is sliced. You did the same kind of thing with the cut-away for the MCA Idea Box on the roof making another frame or view of the sky.
DA: There is that kind of pick up, and even down to the coloring, when we were talking about the coloring. The gray tiling was something that I was really also drawn to. This idea of this glazed luminous surface, and in a way, the gray of our building which came out of a whole technical rationale, but in the end was a decision made, sort of in a way for me—the reason it made so much sense was its reference very directly to what Ponti was doing, but not in a literal way. But it was kind of an intellectual relationship to that.
CMP: Right, and I think that double skin wall where you have the gray and then you have the white behind it also creates a whole mysterious color, mysterious phrase or depth. There’s Luis Barragan's Cloud Library too. I've connected your work so much to Barragan’s. There is a very psychological component to all of his thinking. We have never really talked in depth about the psychological aspects of architecture. We have touched on it in relationship to arguments about minimalism and theatre, but let's go deeper.
DA: I think architecture is a kind of psychological landscape. It's a terrain of fragments that come and form in a place around an idea of usefulness, but Barragan was one of the first architects I know who talked about the idea of drawing with light. And people, when they think of Barragan, they think of color and they think that's what he's about. Actually, Barragan, when he was doing color, he was really doing color as a way of drawing the light. He was drawing light in space. The articulation of the form, and the abstraction was reduced so that you could really feel the phenomenology of the light, or the refraction of the light. I only understood that when I went finally to see his work. I did a big tour of his work many years ago and talked to some academics who were writing about him, and realized that actually this was something more profound than I had realized. This was not a formal device, but it was actually, when you went deeper into what Barragan was doing, Barragan was referencing his childhood very much.
CMP: He was so paranoid. The shapes and frames of views he creates in domestic environments peek into the subconscious.
DA: I think my relationship to light is about that. I was born practically on the equator and sort of isolated, around that space. I know that for me the idea of space is formulated completely around light. It's not even about view, it's about light. If I'm honest about it, that's the strongest sort of emotional memory that I have from my kind of crazy sort of upbringing in different parts of the world, until we came to Europe.
CMP: I took David to the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico as a part of an extended conversation about domestic environments and about the scale of relating the condition of domesticity, to a physical kind of content or container for people that makes sense with their bodies' shapes and forms. In the African series that you did for the BBC, a lot of the architecture that you looked at reminded me of American pueblos.
Terri Griffith: You're speaking really theoretically. I haven't seen the museum in person yet, but Serena has, and your museum is very beautiful, but it seems quite practical, as well. I heard you both speak earlier on a panel for Art Chicago. David, you used the term useful, and Cydney talked a little bit about the myth of flexibility. It seems as if many of the new museums are beautiful jewels in and of themselves, but they're not made for the artworks. Can you address that and maybe how you two work that out?
DA: I like to put it this way—basically there are certain institutions which are archival museums, where there is a kind of over-burdening content problem.
CMP: There is a content problem!
DA: So in that arena, what is starting to happen—there is a kind of missed opportunity. The idea of the archive is not a problem; it just has to be analyzed. I think The Peace Center in Oslo actually shows the trajectory forward. It's not about having endless miles of spaces that you bore and wear down the press, but actually it's about how you curate the archive.
CMP: The question is what is deep storage? I think the encyclopedic museums all over the world, especially some American museums, have been very misguided. If you didn't set your mark in the sand and consider deep storage then you're always chasing a lost archive of sorts. Raiders of the Lost Archives!
DA: Or Searchers of the Lost Archives.
CMP: Yes, Searchers of the Lost Archives. The thing that's happening though is visible in the environment that we're in at Art Chicago. There is a lot of artwork in the contemporary field. You’re seeing this fractured arena between museums and collectors and artist studios and the encyclopedic and the Kunsthalle. How all these things are going to line up to will be interesting. I'm so grateful to be untethered by that idea of an archive.
DA: I think that released us from the burden of that problem and allowed clarity to the MCA project. We’re able to instrumentalize the position to make something, which is this idea of being useful, because it becomes very clear what you do with it. The burden, talking about the wrong way of working, it's this way of working where you try to distract your audience from the kind of burden of the problem, is by over amplifying the visual content, you know?
CMP: There are even examples of that. Installations where pheromones or wall color choices are intended to induce emotion. Or artificial plants are brought in because the audience is assumed to be unable to connect Monet with the landscape. This comes from the pressure that's been put on public institutions related to public funding. So it's a much deeper conversation than this, and there's a real legitimate reason why these institutions have taken to the ground level.
Serena Worthington: My experience of the museum at the opening was that there was a lot of activity. Everybody was trying to get ready for the opening. Then I went through with the gala crowd. There was a really large crowd, but there's this tremendous feeling—like there are moments of repose. It’s almost like being in a garden; there's these moments of stillness.
DA: A garden is the best metaphor.
SW: Even though it's a busy place and there's a lot going on, I really appreciated looking at the inaugural artists, there was really room to look at them. You know, Cydney, you were talking about at one point that there are people who come to the museum and stay two or three hours and I can really see that, because it doesn't drive you out the way some museums do.
CMP: There are actually museums that drive you away. That they reject you, and that rejection comes from the physical environment or an over-didactic approach. There could be many examples of that, of flattening the experience. Most recent contemporary art museum installations offer viewing experiences in landscape. David had the source materials that he always works with connecting his projects to objects. For me, I made this star to ensure that the museum offered an experience with equal portions of art, architecture, light, movement, or circulation—however you want to define that—and nature. So there was this kind of harmonious intersection. Not one idea was subservient to the next but David completely already understood that. His work is like that. Maybe I drove the nature part a little bit with visits to gardens to look at trees.
SW: Well, it's a LEED certified building, correct? What was that like? Had you had experience doing that before, David?
DA: In London, we don't have LEED in Europe, but we have always been supporters. In our buildings, sustainability was encouraged.
CMP: The British government has been taking the lead in the global conversation about the environment.
DA: So we were used to this idea of developing green buildings. When the MCA board pushed this agenda, it was exciting to all of us because that's how I work. I seek to make buildings whose form is about a kind of sustainable agenda.
CMP: The standard in the building industry is to build 50-year buildings, but now I think they're down to 10-year buildings. Our building has got so much tonnage in a lot of marvelous ways, literally with steel, but also with the ideas, that it is a building that will last. That's pretty amazing. So sustainability becomes a consideration that not only is an immediate posting of an agenda in the community, this is an important agenda, and being LEED certified is a big leadership leap. Creating this path where time doesn't matter to that agenda either, it's not just a short-term thing.
TG: It seems like with an 18 million dollar budget it's remarkable what you accomplished with that amount of money. Is there anything that the budget drove that you now really appreciate? Like you thought at the time you were giving something up, but it created an opportunity to use a material in a new way or create space in a new way that you now are grateful?
DA: Actually in making the building, the idea of a tough budget—I mean what was kind of good was that there was a kind of discourse about the value of things. It was a very active discourse.
CMP: Although we did spend a year in value engineering, and we lost momentum. It’s this process where you kind of look at every little…
DA: Screw, and bolt, and rivet.
CMP: While we were doing that, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, which put pressure on material costs like drywall and steel. Also all the steel was going to Dubai and Beijing. We were fighting those conditions. It was just a fruitless exercise. I highly discourage value engineering. And it's a message for one's life, too. Do not value engineer your life. There are just a lot of ways you can deliver ideas out there in the world. It's not about value engineering. The end.
TG: That's a great way to end, thank you so much. We really, really appreciate you taking time from a very, very busy day!
—May 18, 2008
Originally published on Bad at Sports: Contemporary Art Talk