The Denver Art Museum: Gio Ponti's [American] “Dream come True”


Angelica Ponzio


Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil


Regional Spotlight, Colorado
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Rocky Mountain Modern Part Six
The Denver Art Museum: Gio Ponti´s [American] “Dream come True”

[…] Denver too dreamed with him {Otto Bach}, and he for Denver, of a beautiful museum. And the Museum came true. May Denver continue to dream, and dream about “New Denver Buildings” – and its dreams will come true!

Gio Ponti, 1971[1]

Gio Ponti´s contact with North America dates from 1928 when he was invited to participate in an interior and furniture design exhibition organized by Macy´s department store,[2] but It was only at the beginning of the 1950s that Ponti would return his attention to the American continent. During that period, his many travels included Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and the United States, and were marked by the enunciation of some of his key design principles that would be taken further in the decades to come.[3] In North America, Ponti´s journeys resumed as a response to participate in a traveling exhibition of Italian industrial and decorative arts, “Italy at Work - Her Renaissance in Design Today.”  Inaugurated in November of 1950 in New York, the exhibit benefited from the policies of the Marshall Plan, as it intended to display the “re-birth of Italian production” after the war.[4] During that period, Ponti would also maintain partnerships with American companies from tableware to furniture makers, such as Singer and Sons and Altamira, both of which were in search of new ideas that were not “only functional,” but also presented a touch of “fantasy” and “decoration.”[5] Ponti would also figure in a one-man show traveling exhibit organized by the Boston Museum in 1954 and later, in 1966, on another organized by the UCLA art galleries.[6] By the end of the 1960s, Ponti´s work in America was still kept on the small scale. Besides designing in New York both the interiors for the Alitalia offices in 1959, and the Time Life auditorium in 1969,[7] it was only in the early 1970s that Ponti finally designed a large-scale building in the Americas-his only museum, and the closing act of his career-the Denver Art Museum. Ponti came as a suggestion for the major new headquarters of the Denver museum by local Denver architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett.[8] Sudler was already engaged on the new museum´s master-planning as the architect of record and was in charge of the Museum´s interior design. Already acquainted with Ponti, he reportedly identified with what he described as Ponti´s absence of stylish “preconceived notions.”[9]

[the] disappearance of the wall? today […] we also make walls not to carry the rest but to carry itself in order to plastically close spaces: spatial plastic, pure masonry charm, walls to be looked at)[10]

Walls freed from the need to define a volume; walls free, at last, from the roof upwards, to create a “musical” (music, muses, museum) protection to the penthouse and its patios[11]

In December 1966, Ponti published in Domus the Chapel of the New Charles Hospital in Milan (1964-67).[12] In that article, he enunciated twelve design principles embodying the Chapel´s design.[13] At the end of the list, Ponti announced the “coherence of expression,” therefore also holding responsible many of his designs for expressing those ideas, including the Denver Art Museum. However, regarding Denver´s proposal, four principles stood out on the list, described as follows.

Representing the core of Ponti´s ideas, the first principle enunciated was the “formal invention” of the “finite,” “closed” form. Connected to his aphorism “l´architettura è un cristallo,” it regarded the pursuit of the “crystal” in architecture.[14] By reinforcing the faceted nature of the crystal, Ponti was altogether proposing a solution to the limitless nature of the parallelepiped, stigmatized on the International style´s tower blocks.[15] Therefore, his proposals sought for “the abandonment of the rectangular plan” by creating hierarchies of independent facades in order to reach a “plastic unity” and a “continuity of views,” Ponti´s architectural “organism.”[16] The other three principles that can be referred were: the “expressiveness” of the superimposed external skin of the facades, understood as independent elements; the “illusiveness” of perception, given by the reflection of the daylight on the facade’s diamond and flat shaped tiles; and the “play of light” enabled by the coated facades through which “space becomes light, as light creates space.”[17]

Therefore Ponti started “breaking the box” by detaching facades, considering the walls as connected light surfaces, or better, “sheets of paper.”[18] That design strategy was clearly demonstrated on the Dutch Bjenkorf (1964-68) store façade, designed with a strip of punched paper-folding model, and on the free-standing Taranto Cathedral (1963-71) “sail” façade “for the sky,” by exercising the independent surface strategy to its limits.[19] At the Denver Museum, it was no different when Ponti explained the function of the facades, designed as a “free-standing aerial enclosure” to transform “a static cube with no direction – the museum´s pre-established volume - into ‘vertical’ images decomposed by successive changes from light to shade as the sun moves across the sky, and full of tricks “to catch the light” and transform it into glistening surfaces.”[20] In the Gio Ponti archives in Milan, nine plates signed by Ponti and Sudler describe the design process of the Museum, a  multi-story building in the city center, as planned by  Otto Karl Bach, the museum director, and James Sudler.[21] Bach´s unity module, a square, was decomposed into two blocks of different heights united by a central core and an added annex for the auditorium (which was not built). By proposing an “illusive reality,” Ponti decomposed the ten-sided façade through a “graphic transformation of the exterior surface into a composition of many vertical elements.” The result was twenty-two vertical planes that were then decomposed by displacement, generating twenty-four separate planes wrapping up the geometry. On this “ribbon of thin thickness,” the different planes were punctuated by “slit-like windows which continued as [an] open crenellation on the skyline,” connected by “fissures,”the vertical windows letting the light inwards.[22]

Ponti´s concern with the perception of light in buildings was recurrent in his projects, leading him to experiment with different finishing materials and nighttime illumination.[23] Hence, since the mid-fifties, he worked with diamond-faceted ceramic tiles trying to recreate “luminous” and “moving” patterns to be superimposed on building facades.[24] In Milan, almost concurrently with the Denver project, Ponti designed the Savoia (1968-69) and the Ina (1963-67) buildings, “making the facades appear as an airy surface without weight, without thickness.”[25] At Denver though, the tiles had to be adapted to the local weather and therefore were produced as custom glass facing tiles.[26] Another particularity of Ponti´s concerns with the “illusiveness” factor was that he employed two types of tiles: flat relieved as a contour of the widows, and diamond faced to the rest of the building, therefore adding a variety of perceptions to the eye. In such a way, the building was also an architecture of light, glowing during sunset and lighting up at night. Dubbed an “Italian castle,” with its top terrace surrounded by its punctuated profile, it pleased Ponti to know that it was one whose purpose was to protect art:

They say that the Museum is a castle (an Italian one). When a building is said to be a castle, however, a transposition is already implicit, the implication being that one is “talking art”. […] And if a castle has to protect priceless works of art isn´t it only right it should be a castle?[27]


Pairing up with Neoclassical, International, Postmodern and Deconstructivist style architecture,[28] Gio Ponti´s Denver Art Museum stands out timelessly, helping configure the city´s civic center park southwest quadrant and the overall landscape. Having received two major additions since its inauguration in 1971, it converses peacefully with latest Machado Silvetti and Fentress Architects’ new Welcome Center, a careful and respectful addition, resembling much of Ponti´s ideas for the auditorium annex, which was never built.

The author would like to thank the Gio Ponti Archives for their constant support of her research studies on Gio Ponti´s life works.


[1] Ponti, Gio. A Denver. Il Denver Art Museum, di James Suddler, Joal Cronenwett, Gio Ponti. Domus, n.511, 1971.

[2] Dellapiana, E. Italy Creates. Gio Ponti, America And the Shaping of The Italian Design Image, Res Mobilis. Oviedo: University Press. ISSN: 2255-2057, Vol.7, nº. 8, pp. 127.

[3] Ponzio, A. Gio Ponti’s Latin [American] Encounters: A Reading from the Archives, Journal of Design History, Volume 32, Issue 4, November 2019, Pages 356–375,

[4] Dellapiana, E., Op. Cit., p.25.

[5] De Guttry, I., Maino, M.P. Il Mobile Italiano degli anni 40 e 50´, Bari: Laterza, 2010, p. 42.

[6]Ponti. L., Gio Ponti: The Complete Works. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990, p.288; the UCLA show was organized by Nathan Shapira, student, and friend of Ponti.

[7] Ponzio, A. Gio Ponti, Fantasia Italiana in New York, Docomomo USA newsletter, in:

[8] Ponti, G. America: The Happy Denver Museum, Domus, n. 485, April 1970, p. 36.

[9] Undated press release (circa December 1966) by White & White, Inc. of Denver, “How do you work with a genius?”, Museum of Modern Art, Dept. of Architecture and Design research files, “Ponti, Gio; Sudler, James Assoc., Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, 1965, in: Bergdoll, B. Denver art Museum, in: Gio Ponti, Casciato, M, Irace, F., Rome: Maxxi/Forma, 2019, p. 240.

[10] Ponti, G. Amate L´archittetura. L´architettura è un Cristallo, Genova: Vitale e Ghianda, 1957, p.49.

[11] Ponti, G. America: The Happy Denver Museum, Domus, n. 485, Op. Cit.

[12] Ponti, G. La cappella del nuovo ospedale di San Carlo a Milano, Domus, n.445, jan., 1948.

[13] Some of these principles were announced on his monograph volume Expressione di Gio Ponti of 1954, and on his seminal book of 1957, Amate L´Architettura. Ponti, G. Espressione di Gio Ponti, Aria D´Italia, Milano: Daria Garnati, 1954; Ponti, G. Amate L´archittetura, Op. Cit.

[14] Ponti, G. Amate L´archittetura, Op. Cit., p. 39.

[15] Ponti, G. Op. Cit., p.50, 51; Irace, F. Architecture as a Crystal. From the Closed Form to the Articulated Plan, in: Gio Ponti, Loving Architecture, Casciato, M, Irace, F. eds., Rome: Maxxi/Forma, 2019, p. 164-173.

[16] Ponti, G. Espressione di Gio Ponti, Op. Cit., p.132; Ponti, G. La vera casa deve essere un “organismo,” Corriere della Sera, Milan, 17 July, 1953.

[17] Ponti, G. La cappella del nuovo ospedale di San Carlo a Milano, Op. Cit.

[18] Ponti, G. Amate L´archittetura, Op. Cit., p.139.

[19] Ponti. L., Gio Ponti: The Complete Works. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990, pp. 232, 250.

[20] Ponti, G., Domus n.511, Op. Cit.

[21] Bergdoll, B., Op. Cit., p. 240; Gio Ponti Archives pictures: 298DIS22, 298DIS23, 298DIS24, 298DIS25, 298DIS28, 298DIS29.

[22] Ibid., p.241; Ibid.

[23] Ponti´s concerns with light perception were a recurrent concern, see more at:  Ponti, G., Giorno e notte. Domus, n.320, 1956 p.7; Ponti, Gio. La finestra arredata. Domus n. 298, 1954, p.17-20.

[24] Show “Diamanti” and “Bugne” for Ceramica Joo,1956, in: Ponti, L. Gio Ponti: The Complete Works, Op. Cit., p.198. In 1957 Ponti writes: “let us cover architecture with diamond elements [...] they give the surface a plastic value and play with the light on the sun's circle: they are beautiful;” Ponti, Gio. Amate L´archittetura, Op. Cit., p. 148.

[25] Ponti, G. Facciate lucenti illuminate dal cielo, Domus 469, jan. 1968.

[26] Bergdoll, B., Op. Cit., p.241.

[27] Gio Ponti. Domus, A Denver. Il Denver Art Museum, Op. Cit.

[28] Further south stands Daniel Libeskind along with Davis Partnership Architects´ Frederic C. Hamilton Building deconstructivist extension completed in 2006; as an interesting aspect, the design had its concept explained by a paper folding technique.

About the Author

Angelica Ponzio is a Professor at the Architecture School of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul/UFRGS, Brazil, where she also received her Architectural degree in 1989. She holds a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design from GSAPP, Columbia University, New York (1991) and the title of Doctor in Architecture at PROPAR, UFRGS, Brazil (2013), developing a research period at the Politecnico di Milano (INDACO, 2009) with a CAPES Brazilian scholarship. Expert in Gio Ponti´s work, she has recently published about the Italian architect´s trajectory in Latin America at the Journal of Design History, and was also an invited author on the catalogs of Ponti´s retrospective exhibits at the Museum of Arts Decoratifs, in Paris, in 2018 and at the Maxxi Museum, Rome, 2019/20. Her research fields include the theory and history of modern and contemporary interiors and creative methodologies of design teaching.

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