Students will first pay attention to details about the Denver Art Museum’s North Building and then imagine they are a spider, or other small creature, and write a short piece about exploring the outside of the building from this new perspective.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- identify colors, shapes, and other elements in the North Building;
- use their imaginations to write from different perspectives; and
- feel comfortable giving advice to and using advice from their peers to improve writing skills.
- Warm-up: Have children roll a game-die and ask them to find that number of a particular shape, color, or texture somewhere in your classroom. For example, if a student rolls a 5, have the class find 5 different square shapes. Here are some ideas of what to have them find: blue, square, red, shiny, scratchy, yellow, and clear.
- Tell the students you are going to play the same game but with pictures of a building instead. Show the children pictures of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building. Have them roll the die again. Whatever number it lands on, ask students to find that same number of different shapes, lines, and other features in the pictures. For example, if students roll a 2, have them find 2 horizontal lines. Be sure to make each round more challenging than the previous.
- Tell students to imagine that they are a spider (or an animal, bug, etc., as small as a spider) that is climbing around the outside of the building. Write about what they see (views, colors, immediate impressions), feel (texture, temperature, wind, sun), and the effort/exertion of the climb/movement. Allow them to look at pictures of the different views of the building as they write.
- After writing for about 10–15 minutes, have them meet in groups of 2–3 to share what they have so far. Tell them to give each other feedback on what is clear, what they could improve, and what they love.
- Have students share their finished stories with the entire class or in groups of 3–4.
- One game-die
- Lined paper and pencil/pen for each student
- About the Art section on the North Building
- One color copy of the building for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Writing and Composition
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
The Denver Art Museum’s North Building was designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti, along with Denver-based architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett. Ponti lived in Italy while the North Building was designed and constructed, and the three men sent revisions of drawings back and forth between Denver and Milan. Ponti often referred to the trio as “we three architects.” The North Building opened on October 3, 1971, and is Ponti’s only building in North America. The form of the North Building provided an identity for the Denver Art Museum and became a symbol of the DAM itself.
Gio Ponti was born in Milan in 1891. He studied architecture there but was forced to interrupt his studies to serve in the Italian army during World War I. After the war, he completed his degree but instead of becoming an architect, he took a position as the artistic director for a ceramics manufacturer. Ponti took on a number of different roles throughout the course of his life, including architect, designer, poet, painter, and editor. As a designer, he created things like silverware, glassware, ceramics, chairs, and even a coffee machine and an automobile.
While coming up with new building designs, Ponti followed a six-step problem-solving process:
- He defined the problem.
- He looked through many sources for ideas.
- He sat and thought for a while to develop his own intuitive ideas.
- He made many quick sketches to explore all possibilities.
- He gathered all the sketches together and judged them.
- Finally, he dropped the rejected drawings on the floor until only the best idea remained.
Ponti was extremely passionate about his work. He continued to work into his 80s, designing his last building in the early 1970s. He died in his family home in Milan in 1979.
What Inspired It?
Many visitors have said that the North Building looks like a castle or fortress. These comparisons complement how Ponti understood the function of art museums: to protect treasures. He asked, “If a museum has to protect works of art, isn’t it only right that it should be a castle?” Ponti was also interested in creating a building that would reflect light. “I asked the sun and the light and the sky to help me,” he said. He chose to cover the building with gray tiles (in several different shades of gray) because the neutral color picks up the sky’s reflections better than a strong color would. He described the DAM’s North Building as “an invitation to the sun.”
Otto Bach, Director of the Denver Art Museum at the time, envisioned a modern, visitor friendly museum where patrons could find the collection they wanted to see easily. Instead of walking through gallery after gallery on one floor, collections are divided into seven floors. Ponti emphasized this verticality in his building design. He overlapped vertical wall segments, arranged the outside wall tiles vertically, and used vertical, narrow windows. The walls within the galleries were designed so that they could be moved around to suit the needs of different curators and their collections. Because of this, there is great variety in gallery design among the different floors of the building.
The outer walls of the building are covered in over one million flat and pyramidal gray glass tiles that were specially manufactured for the museum. Ponti chose glass tiles because ceramic tiles would not have withstood the extreme temperatures of Colorado. It took workers two years to set all of the tiles by hand.
Some of the tiles are flat and some are pyramid-shaped. Because the two tile shapes reflect light at different angles, you can see different patterns on the exterior walls depending on the weather, time of day, and season. Flat tiles outline the perimeters of walls and windows. On the south side of the building there are patches of tile with the same gray shade—workers setting the tiles were unaware that there were different shades of gray and didn’t shuffle the initial batches.
The windows in the North Building are many different shapes and sizes. There are square, rectangle, and diamond-shaped windows. Some have glass blocks, shutter-like flaps, or bunker-like slits. The elongated hexagon or diamond window is one of Ponti’s signature shapes. Sun and light can destroy art, so the architects planned much smaller windows in the galleries than in the lobbies. From the inside, the windows frame views of Denver and the mountains. From outside at night, they create patterns of light.
Rectangular cutouts and swooping curves along the roofline form what Joal Cronenwett (one of the architects who worked with Ponti) called “sky windows.” As Ponti described, “the outline of the museum’s crown is open to the sky, the beautiful Denver sky.”
Look for the original oval-shaped entryway. It looks like a short tunnel made of metal, leading into the building. We now use a door in a different location as the main entrance to the North Building.