Rocky Mountain High
The Lab at Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, is a peak performance from Hagy Belzberg
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 8/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
If you ask Hagy Belzberg about cutting-edge architecture, he can rattle off descriptions of dozens of residences he's completed in and around Los Angeles. And his Patina restaurant and L.A. Philharmonic Store, both housed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, clearly prove that he can hold his own with his former employer Frank Gehry. Ask Belzberg about practical experience in the art world, though, and he confesses absolute neophyte status. Yet that didn't preclude Belzberg Architects from being commissioned for Colorado's nonprofit Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, a combination museum and think tank. "We just clicked," Belzberg recalls of executive director Adam Lerner, who's also an affiliate curator at the Denver Art Museum.
Considerably smaller in scope, Belzberg's Lab at Belmar, as the institution is better known, encompasses 11,500 square feet on two levels of the mixed-use Belmar complex in Lakewood, a town 5 miles outside Denver. When shoppers weary of the Gap and Victoria's Secret, went the rationale of Belmar developer Continuum Partners, they could try on culture for size. So the Lab's appeal was designed to be broad, not snob.
Casual passersby and dedicated aficionados alike are welcomed by an immense, biomorphic white fiberglass form, digitally modeled and prefabricated in California and trucked to Colorado. The element starts outside the building's brick facade as a canopy—strong enough to support literally a ton of snow—then appears to pierce the frameless glass storefront. Inside, the form swoops across at the 18-inch-high mark to form a built-in bench before ascending to the 17-foot ceiling.
Needless to say, this sculptural intervention dominates the Lab's 1,000-square-foot ground level, primarily given over to reception. The reception desk is wrapped in chartreuse faux suede and capped by a white acrylic counter—and that's it for furnishings. The adjacent concrete stairway, its underside painted in a matching green, leads to the second level, mostly exhibition space, plus a lounge and a terrace.
"We learned that flexibility is the greatest attribute you can provide," Belzberg says. "That and controlled lighting." Ergo his system of partitions that shift without concern for electrical or structural requirements. Nothing more than drywall 12 feet high by 6 inches thick, the panels slip into the ceiling's steel channels. "The partitions don't feel movable," he attests. "They're more like finished walls that are repainted and taped as they're reused."
Come time to mount an exhibition, a crew reconfigures the panels to suit the changing scales and mediums. That way, as two consecutive recent shows illustrate, Liam Gillick's multimedia environments can step aside for Fang Lijun's row of gilt heads. There was room, too, for filmmaker Isaac Julien. His work, sometimes illuminated in light-box fashion, hung in a white-box space set up in front of a window wall. The ambient daylight was a soft fill for Belzberg's track of halogen spots.
The Lab can also be configured with a black-box gallery-theater, built on the same flexible premise. In this mode, the slip-in panels are covered in black felt, which soaks up almost 90 percent of noise, according to the architect. Low ottomans, also in black, ensure optimal sight lines. A black shag rug, though not quite a red carpet, was nevertheless premiere-ready for the U.S. debut of Julien's film Fantôme Afrique, shown on three screens.
To prevent further sound from passing the partitions, they can be caulked at the top and bottom. When the black box is dismantled, it's relatively easy to scrape the caulk off the floor: Belzberg's version of the classic art-gallery polished concrete is a custom shade mixing in crushed white marble and silica.
Besides concrete, drywall, and fiberglass, the materials palette includes glass and stainless steel. Belzberg used both for the stair's balustrade and the elevator's shaft and cab. It's See and Be Seen at a mile high.