Behind the scenes of each Denver Art Museum exhibit is a staff of 100+ who, until this year, worked in an outdated building blocks from the museum itself. So how did the administration building transition from an inefficient space to one that is functional and collaborative? By way of Roth Sheppard Architects. Here’s how they designed a workplace that complements surrounding museums, unites staff, creates serenity with its blue hue—and puts a unique mathematical spin on window spacing.
WORDS: ABBY WILSON | IMAGES: JAMES FLORIO
For 20 years, a historic brick building at 14th Street and Tremont Place housed 100-plus Denver Art Museum (DAM) administrative employees. The space, a ’20s-era former Denver Public Schools administration building, siloed museum staff members, lacked art storage, and was a 15-minute walk from other museum entities, sending staffers scurrying five blocks between buildings for meetings. Clearly, change was in order.
Yet given the staff’s then-inefficient, cumbersome reality, the imagined office plans seemed like a pipe dream: a functional place where sunlight infiltrates and boosts productivity, where nooks occur to recharge, where the design could better impact efficiency—a collaborative place where “chance encounters” are not only happenstance, they are inherent.
Roth Sheppard Architects turned that vision into a reality with the new DAM administration building in the Golden Triangle Museum District. To execute the vision, Roth Sheppard brainstormed themes, identified staff needs, considered color psychology, and sought to differentiate without distracting from the surrounding icons.
The result? The DAM administration building now touts 50,000-square-feet of space, including the 15,000-square-foot Frederick R. Mayer Library and storage area, comprising the entire lower level. More than a third of the project’s budget went into constructing the temperature- and humidity-controlled collection storage, where more than 17,000 pieces have been transferred thus far, returning valuable museum space to the public. The privately funded building, completed in April, was built on DAM-owned property formerly used as a staff parking lot. “From the start, Roth Sheppard’s vision for us was an elegant office building, quiet by its elegance,” said Cathey McClain Finlon, member of the DAM Board of Trustees and a key leader in the project. “Our challenge was to design and build a tasteful, beautiful building to complement the gorgeous architectural extravagances of the DAM’s [Daniel Libeskind–designed] Hamilton Building, the [Allied Works Architecture–designed] Clyfford Still Museum, and the Gio Ponti–designed North Building on the museum campus,” not to mention the soon-to-arrive Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.
While gallery buildings are traditionally designed to be “protectors of art,” solid in massing and deliberate in foundation, the team at Roth Sheppard took the exact opposite approach with the administration building—focusing less on opacity and more on transparency. “We are exposing what makes these museums work, the behind-the-scenes activities and creativity that give life to each show and program,” said Jeffrey Sheppard, AIA, Cofounder and Design Principal at Roth Sheppard Architects, who spearheaded the project along with Tim Politis, AIA, Project Architect.
The team also recognized that the administration building is more than simply storage and office space: The creativity and teamwork that happens inside makes it worthy of planting roots among the top architectural gems in Denver. The key to its success would be to complement—rather than compete with—the iconic surrounding landmarks. And rather than designing a solution based on that challenge alone, Roth Sheppard began the process by consulting museum staff.
The firm strategically approached the project by listening—and not just to leadership. Both department heads and general staff members participated in several workshops meant to unearth their team’s functional needs, communication preferences, and lifestyle conveniences.
Roth Sheppard encouraged museum employees to bring wish-list photos and to provide words that described a particular idea or need, which they displayed and discussed. Eventually, those distilled into initial design options. “Our design approach for the project included several workshops with the staff to determine not only their functional need, but also their aspirations for how they could become more collaborative, share information, learn from each other, and work in an environment that speaks to their creativity and the art culture in general,” said Sheppard.
In addition to designing the building to be aesthetically compatible with the surrounding museum buildings, after conducting the workshops, Roth Sheppard was tasked with multiple challenges, including: 1) maximizing usable square footage while keeping the height lower than the Still Museum; 2) providing flexible and collaborative meeting space with an open plan work environment; 3) optimizing interior daylight while minimizing glare; 4) meeting sustainable and LEED standards for energy and efficiency; 5) better utilizing shared storage and “chance encounter” zones; and 6) designing an interior environment that visually speaks to the creative nature of the staff, the work being accomplished, and the art culture. Roth Sheppard had their work cut out for them.
Designed from the inside out to accommodate staff needs, including a more open workspace, Roth Sheppard’s approach challenges the traditional center core office building; instead, the valuable space is occupied by airy gathering areas. These informal meeting spaces also include a “living room” and a massive 14-foot mosaic storage wall showcasing every book published by the DAM. That bookcase, complete with an elegant, silver sliding ladder, shields staff from west-facing sun, while the clerestory-raised roof and three-story lightwell welcome daylight, solutions catering to both ends of the spectrum: more sunlight and minimal glare.
Checking off even more wish list items, Roth Sheppard installed a bike storage area for staffers, and just inside, next to a tucked-away elevator, are showers and changing rooms for after-work events. By purposefully hiding the elevator and pivoting the focal point to the atrium—with its wide, open exposed concrete staircase—interaction occurs more organically, as the path centrally connects each department.
This calculated design, in addition to the building’s “heartbeat zones,” which are strategically placed on axis with each staircase landing, are designed to “enhance chance encounters with various staff and departments to stimulate the exchange of ideas,” according to Sheppard. Heartbeat zones are also where all the planning takes place—images line the tackboard walls, and miniature gallery models cover long worktables, allowing the staff to visually map exhibits, while allowing access to passersby en route to the adjacent open break rooms.
The layout has already proven itself to be effective. During the planning stages for an upcoming exhibit, curator Dr. Timothy J. Standring casually shared with a tour group that the artist’s work would be displayed at other museums. Kristy Bassuener, Associate Director of Communications and Public Affairs, passed by and learned that information, which she otherwise would not have. Bassuener took advantage of that, and strategically shifted the communications schedule to align with the timing of the other shows. As Bassuener put it: “Score for chance encounters!”
Within the heartbeat zones, sliding, transparent, blue Plexiglas dividers lend themselves to makeshift small or large meeting rooms where teams work together on upcoming shows, activities, and programs. In these highly adaptable areas, tables on casters simplify impromptu sessions, and dry-erase paint covers the walls, boosting creativity, eliminating excess equipment, and maximizing efficiency. Its flexible, open floor plan optimizes Colorado’s famed daylight and blue skies, while fostering creativity among staff members and cross-department communication. “It’s original. It hums. And it’s a happy, collaborative work space,” said Finlon.
The request for natural light was also a top priority for Roth Sheppard. “We carefully considered glare and lighting, both natural and artificial, while intentionally creating drama and pools of light versus one continuous light level,” said Sheppard. “We wanted the interior to have a more organic sense to it—an interior that intentionally changes throughout the day in response to our circadian rhythms and outdoor light levels,” as quality workplace lighting promotes better concentration, accuracy, and visibility, which, inevitably, increases productivity.
The atrium lighting mimics that rhythm, as well: Long, blue pendant tube lights float above the open stairwell and change in intensity throughout the day. The pendants represent abstract raindrops in the sunlight, while also stressing the verticality of the space. And the color choice was certainly no afterthought. In fact, the color blue—used throughout the design and details—carries much significance.
For Roth Sheppard, the color blue was much more than a random hue plucked from a rainbow palette. Instead, it was a timeless and calculated choice in color theory symbolizing transparency and nature, establishing calmness, and stimulating alertness relative to our circadian rhythms.
Contemporary blue-and-white Steelcase workstations line the perimeter, creating a functional, open work environment. “This notion of departmental transparency, along with several other factors, provides the basis for the intentional blueness of the interior color palette,” said Sheppard.
In addition to the sense of serenity and the aura of transparency it emits, blue also has ties to the Colorado sky and represents the significance of water in our region. The firm wanted the building’s central atrium to speak to each of these ideas, another reason for designing the blue raindrop-inspired tube lights. “We know from research that the blue range in the color spectrum of natural light is prevalent in early hours of daylight,” said Sheppard. “As one works through the day, we can enhance brain activity by supplementing blue light.”
The mood-setting hue blankets much of the interior, yet it infiltrates to passers outside, as well. Bold shades of blue drape vertical panes of glass wrapping the entire first floor—and there’s a unique design element in those windows. You see, much of this building’s true character lies not in its ergonomics or its energy efficiencies, but in its somewhat inconspicuous details.
THE FINE POINTS
While mindful not to draw attention from the surrounding gallery buildings, Roth Sheppard still incorporated a creative twist. When walking past, pay attention to the main level windows. There lies a pattern—which does not repeat. Inspired by the metaphor of transparency, Sheppard and his team started thinking of that lower level as a sheer curtain, representing transparency in process and openness in communication. “To abstractly reference this notion of a sheer curtain base, we then developed a mathematical sequence for window color, placement, and spacing based on formulating the non-repetitive sequence of pleating and billows in a sheer curtain as it moves in a breeze,” he said. “We then layered this idea into a chaos theory mathematical formula and derived the colorful pattern of the base windows.” Around the entire building, there is no repetition, yet there are only four window glass colors and five window modules.
So what does that non-repeating pattern mean for the building’s interior? As the light changes throughout the day, the articulated glass wall gives staff a balanced sense of privacy and a connection with their surroundings. Outsiders can still get glimpses of the activity within, but with the different glass opacities, the overall reading is “like an old-fashioned film when you see the clipped segmented shots due to the slow movement of the film,” as Sheppard explained it. “They are not working in a fishbowl; instead, there is an ever-changing syncopated rhythm of light and color that engulfs the perimeter.”
The building’s understated elegance and deceptive simplicity respects its placement among iconic museum buildings and is engulfed in subtle nuance. Light-colored limestone and translucent blue glass windows, punctuated by clear and milky white panes, wrap the façade. The street-level window mullions’ verticality is a clever nod to the Still Museum’s vertical concrete texture, while the wide vertical gaps between the limestone exterior mimic the distant Ponti Building’s slit windows. “Our design approach is founded on clarity, simplicity, and organization, yet layered with deeper meaning that unfolds over time—which is more subconscious and subliminal than the ‘in your face’ immediacy of content that is so apparent in most office buildings today,” said Sheppard.
Its melding gray and brown tones and low height dare not compete with the other buildings—a testament to Roth Sheppard’s sensitivity to the surrounding structures. “We designed the building to be visually compatible with the aesthetic divergence of surrounding iconic museum buildings while maintaining a sense of timeless elegance,” said Sheppard. “Consider how a building can draw from its surrounding context to enhance the surrounding buildings and urban condition.”
With its true blue palette, day-lit interior, and unpretentious elegance, this new artistic epicenter is sure to feel fresh, clean, and modern for years to come. The new administration building affords a practical and inspirational space for museum staff, subtly complements its surrounding architectural icons, and adds a certain significance to its Golden Triangle neighborhood. “They helped us realize a space that fits how we work,” said Bassuener. “It allows us to continue to be creative to provide an artistic experience the community deserves.” ♦
WHY SO BLUE?
From the bright skies above, to the vast oceans surrounding us, to the denim jeans covering our backsides, the color blue is consistently ranked as the world’s most-favored color.
It could be the perpetuity associated with natural elements like water and atmosphere that factor into the color blue’s popularity. However, another theory suggests that blue’s high regard stemmed from its exclusivity until the dawn of the industrial age, when mining allowed the pigment to be extracted—likely explaining the color’s marked association with royalty and divinity. As believed by John Ruskin, the late Victorian-era art critic: “Blue color is everlastingly appointed by the deity to be a source of delight.”
And the religious presence of the “something blue” in wedding ceremonies is no coincidence: Blue is also said to symbolize fidelity and commitment. According to an old English custom, a bride is to wear blue ribbons on her wedding gown, a blue sapphire in her ring, and blue speedwell flowers in her bouquet.
When it comes to color psychology, consider this: Color is light, and light is energy. Research shows that exposure to the color blue can have a calming effect on human beings, actually lowering blood pressure and body temperature. These physiological effects that color creates are known as chromodynamics. Psychologically speaking, blue has been proven to inspire mental control, clarity, and creativity, making us feel tranquil, secure, and at peace.
It makes sense, then, why blue would be a popular decorating choice in offices and other high-traffic rooms—productivity increases. What’s more? A 2014 study showed that exposure to blue light (such as the hanging blue LED tube lights in the Denver Art Museum administration building’s atrium) can even improve alertness and brain performance.
IS A PATTERN REALLY A PATTERN IF IT NEVER REPEATS?
Prior to the 20th century, mathematicians typically doubled as architects for their preoccupation with proportion, ratio, and order. Just consider, for example, the ancient columned Greek temples and the precisely calculated Egyptian pyramids. As time has passed, however, architects’ relationship with math—the widely regarded “science of patterns”—has shifted into a slightly more flexible definition.
Take, for instance, the oxymoronic “non-repeating pattern,” supposedly discovered by the English mathematician, philosopher, and physicist Sir Roger Penrose in 1974. With just two symmetrical tiles, each a rhombus that is the combination of the two triangles found in a pentagon’s geometry (also known as “kites” and “darts”), Penrose was able to create an aperiodic pattern that not only achieves fivefold symmetry, but can also infinitely extend without repeating. This non-repeating Penrose Tiling is now incorporated in architectural design all over the world, including the entrance to Oxford University’s Mathematics Institute.
Recent studies now show that these complex geometrical designs may have actually been first developed centuries ago by Islamic artists who used these same stunning tile shapes to adorn their own intricate architecture. Many Islamic shrines, mosques, and tombs were covered with beautifully complex gold and blue tiling—embodying a sophisticated pattern that never repeats.
As these non-repeating patterns expand over a larger area, the kite-to-dart percentage approaches the golden ratio, which is also found throughout nature. Flower petals, tree branches, pinecone scales, sea shells, even hurricanes and spiral galaxies, all occur with the same outward spiral encompassing numbers equal to a Fibonacci number, or golden ratio.
Whether you’re slicing through a pineapple’s prickly, patterned skin, admiring the Taj Mahal’s white marbled minarets, or noticing the mathematics behind the windows of the Denver Art Museum administration building, take a closer look and mind these mesmerizing “patterns.”