Signed, Sealed, Delivered

In the case of the Adam's Mark fiasco, Denver's Office of Planning and Community Development should have stepped in to stop the destruction of historic buildings--but it didn't. Conversely, the agency didn't need to involve itself in the controversy over the sign at the Denver Pavilions--but it did, defending Power's wrongheaded decision to allow the sign to qualify as art for funding purposes. And that's no surprise, since Gibbs's boss is planning director Jennifer Moulton. At a city council salute when she stepped down as DURA's director this past summer, Powers said she's walked "hand in hand" with Moulton--in this and other recent affronts to the common good.

Before examining the "architecture" of the Denver Pavilions, let's look at the appalling Adam's Mark Hotel, which was designed by an in-house architectural team from Kummer's HBE. The Adam's Mark addition, which is technically neo-traditional in style, reveals in its awkward proportions an unintentional lesson on the architectural notion of scale, which is the visually informed and sensitive relationship of volumes.

In the original Zeckendorf Plaza, a formal rhythm was created from the complex's distinct elements, which were arranged in perfect four-part harmony. At ground level was the plaza, with its recessed ice rink; up a couple of stories was the roof of the hyperbolic paraboloid; at double that height was the top of the department-store box; and finally, the twenty-plus stories of the tower.

Now the plaza has been replaced with a driveway, the paraboloid with a chunky granite-and-glass box that drunkenly veers this way and that, and the former department store reclad in cheesy black glass with gold-toned aluminum trim. And just for bad measure, some extra stories have been tacked on so that it's not in accordance with the Pei hotel--a building with which it is connected but no longer visually integrated.

The Adam's Mark Hotel is as badly designed as it is possible to imagine, and so is its public-art component. To satisfy DURA's art-money set-aside, Kummer personally selected an untitled group of five ballerinas by St. Louis sculptor Ruth Keller Schweiss. The piece has its limitations--it's ineptly done and ugly--but at least it fulfills a common-sense idea of what public art should be: It's a large outdoor sculptural group placed close to the street. And that's more than can be said for that publicly funded sign next door at the Denver Pavilions.

Looking at the trendy details--and its even trendier tenants--some may be fooled into thinking that the Denver Pavilions has a more sophisticated design than the nearby Adam's Mark. But it doesn't.

The Pavilions' four ersatz modern buildings were designed by ELS, a Berkeley, California-based architectural firm known for its prowess in shopping-center planning. The sunny California origins of the project's designers (and of its developer, Denton) are easy to see in the Pavilions' pedestrian plan, which features a lot of open-air or minimally covered staircases that should prove to be a maintenance nightmare now that the snow has started to fall.

The Pavilions runs for two blocks along the 16th Street Mall. Taken as a group, the project's separate elements neither gel as a single concept nor read as a row of separate buildings. Instead, they're a confusing array of unrelated forms, covered in stucco and painted in a jarring color scheme of red, pink and putty. The tinted stucco forms have been haphazardly jammed together --big, theatrical shapes crash into one another for no good aesthetic or functional reason. The gigantic curving wall that houses the United Artists Theaters is placed on top of a multi-story box on the Tremont Place side and looks as though it's ready to fall into the street. There's a baffling array of sights--here a little Viennese Secession-style window, a moderne wall over there, '50s trim above and some Chicago commercial-style massing below. Obviously, the designers had no clear architectural point of view. Some of the details are nice by themselves, but they've been put together so badly that the whole of the Denver Pavilions is much less than the sum of its parts.

With its complicated formal relationships and its polychromy, the Pavilions bears a superficial relationship to two of the city's finest works of architecture, the 1985 Tabor Center complex by Kohn, Pederson, Fox and Michael Graves's 1995 Central Library addition at the Civic Center. But this comparison actually reveals exactly what it is that makes KPF and Graves among the most significant architectural firms in the country: Both are able to cogently assemble disparate parts into a unified whole, something the graceless designers of the Denver Pavilions were clearly incapable of doing.

In fact, there is only one thing that unifies the visual cacophony of the Denver Pavilions--that mammoth sign with the forty-foot-tall letters.

The cost of the sign was roughly $800,000, with nearly a third of that--$240,000--coming from the public-art money, and most of the rest, another $400,000, provided by DURA. (To put the $240,000 of public funding for public art in context, Donald Lipski's "Yearling," recently erected on the lawn of the Central Library, cost $175,000.)

The very expensive sign was conjured up by the Pavilions designers, ELS. It's obvious that the sign is a key element of their design for the project and that it would have been erected regardless of whether the money came from what was supposed to be the art budget. And that's exactly why DURA guidelines identified signage as ineligible for that portion of grants set aside for public art. Developers don't have to be forced to erect signs; they will do it in any case. But without prodding, they won't include public art in their projects. And this is exactly what happened at the Denver Pavilions.

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