Clyfford Still Museum

  • Safeguarding an important artist’s life’s work via proactive design and engineering.
  • Resolving complex lighting visual concepts and technical issues.
  • Reducing energy consumption.
  • Realizing an architectural vision through interdisciplinary coordination.

For a building that “plays with light from top to bottom,” as The Denver Post put it, Arup provided sensitive daylight and architectural lighting design, working closely with our mechanicalelectrical and plumbing engineering team.

Daylight was a central element in Allied Works Architecture’s design for the Clyfford Still Museum, named after the reclusive abstract expressionist whose work it was built to house. Our interdisciplinary efforts were key in creating the space’s dominant architectural feature, a perforated cast-in-place concrete ceiling which filters natural light into the galleries. The result is a unique viewing environment whose subtle, environmentally responsive character complements the artist’s dramatic work.

Design concept

Allied Works Architecture wanted the lighting design of the Clyfford Still Museum to reflect Still’s life and art. In addition, to encourage repeat visits to a museum devoted to the work of one artist, Arup and Allied Works proposed a lighting design that varies according to outside conditions.

In the initial stages of the project, Arup researched different light conditions, looking at existing galleries and non-art spaces where light was a primary feature. After collecting a number of visual references, our designers performed quantitative testing using radiance analysis. We then built studio mock-ups to recreate different conditions and explore subjective design possibilities. This facilitated lighting of a full-scale gallery model on the project site for final testing and refinement.

The resulting design achieves the architect’s vision, mixing the fluidity of daylight with dark spaces and craggy surfaces.

Preserving a lifetime’s worth of work

Protecting sensitive art, always a critical issue in museum design, was of particular concern for the Clyfford Still museum. Because it holds 94% of the artist’s entire output, failure to properly design the building systems could result in the loss of a complete body of work.

One of the primary considerations in developing the conservation plan was humidity. Because canvas fibres are damaged by fluctuations in moisture, museum environments need to ensure stable relative humidity. Denver’s arid climate made this a particular challenge.

We drew upon our experience with the Denver Art Museum to provide design solutions tailored to the context. Tests conducted during the Hamilton Wing project had shown that a systems failure during a hot Colorado summer day would lead to unacceptably low humidity levels in less than an hour. Because the Hamilton Wing had experienced power and service failures since its opening, we knew this was a real concern.

These factors led us to make the unusual suggestion of creating a separate backup system for the Clyfford Still Museum’s archive space. Despite the high cost of such a system  –  particularly given the added financial pressures of the economic downturn  –  the client decided that it was a worthwhile investment.

In the finished building, the archives rely on the standard building systems under normal conditions. All incoming services (electrical, chilled water, heating hot water) are monitored, and if any begin to fluctuate out of range the backup system kicks in. In the event of a prolonged power outage, the curatorial staff can relocate artworks on display into the archive space for protection, since the backup system is powered by an emergency generator.

To ensure that the lighting design met art conservation requirements, we worked closely with the museum director to understand long-term needs, then tailored our design accordingly to control light transmission and penetration.



  • Daylit gallery. Credit Jeremy Bitterman.Open gallery

    Unique lighting creates a distinctive visitor experience for a Denver musem.

  • Exterior view of Clyfford Still Museum showing textured concrete facade. Credit Jeremy Bitterman.Open gallery

    Cost-effective engineering strategies helped the client reduce costs.