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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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The Sociopathological Architect

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 12, 2011

Ponti's Prison

I don’t normally write about architecture here because it seems off-topic.  But buildings certainly change our behavior, and I think about that every time I go near one.

So this morning I went looking for the Denver Art Museum and instead found what I took to be a prison, the museum’s North Building, opened in 1971.  The woman at the desk inside explained that Italian architect Gio Ponti had intended it to look like a castle, complete with slit windows, because he thought art needed to be locked up and safeguarded.  “If a museum has to protect works of art,” he pronounced, “isn’t it only right that it should be a castle?”  The original design actually included a moat.  Ponti’s main entrance, now closed off, is a cylinder that feels like an airlock between alien worlds, art within, drooling masses outside.

Once you manage to find your way in, oddly, the interior is incredibly homey, with warm colors on the walls, and easy chairs arranged in little groupings for people to sit and chat, or just contemplate the art before them.  I have rarely felt more comfortable in a museum.

Libeskind's shipwreck

So then I wandered over to the museum’s new addition, named after some benefactor and designed by Daniel Libeskind.  If Ponti thought it was his job to shut out the city, Libeskind seems to think his job is to make war on it.  His building is a jumble of jagged edges, threatening everything around it. Instead of inviting you to come in, it roars at you to keep your distance:  Don’t touch me.  It’s also covered in highly reflective metal, so you can barely even look at it by day.    Inside, function is similarly distorted by form.  The walls and ceilings everywhere skew toward you or away from you, making it hard to figure out where you are in the building, and where you should be going next.  I found it extremely difficult to just stand still and look at the art, because even standing still, I felt motion sickness coming on.  Libeskind clearly wants us to know that he is an artist, indeed, the artist, above all others, not merely someone who sets the scene.

God save us from such architects.

One Response to “The Sociopathological Architect”

  1. Pahl Samson said

    This has a name. Its called Starchitecture, when the “starchitect” thinks they are the reason the building is getting built, not its intended use.

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