Big Splash

Colorado's Ocean Journey is swimming with artistic success.

When Colorado's Ocean Journey co-founders Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming moved to town in 1992 with an idea for an aquarium in the Platte Valley, they appeared to be a couple of pipe-dreaming flakes.

The very idea of a facility devoted to marine life seemed absurd in landlocked Denver -- even if it were built on the banks of our sorry excuse for a river. And the surrounding area, which was formerly Denver's rail hub, was a vast wasteland with nothing happening.

Now, less than a decade later, it turns out that the husband-and-wife team were, in fact, visionaries. The glittering new Ocean Journey has become an instant landmark sporting a noteworthy contemporary design. It has also been a hit with the public; nearly half a million people have visited the aquarium since its late-June opening.

Colorado's Ocean Journey, view looking west across the Platte River.
Colorado's Ocean Journey, view looking west across the Platte River.
"Banners," by Tim Prentice, wall-mounted sculpture at Robischon Gallery.
"Banners," by Tim Prentice, wall-mounted sculpture at Robischon Gallery.

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"Off the Deep End"
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Sitting handsomely on the west bank of the Platte, the building's core is made of red brick and houses the water tanks, filtering and pumping equipment, administrative offices, a restaurant and a gift shop. Both the red color and the details of the fancy brickwork recall elements of the historic architecture of nearby LoDo. Walls made of glass and dull silvery-gray aluminum wrap around the core in a serpentine arrangement.

The elegant design and functional components are the work of Odyssea, a joint effort of two distinguished Denver architectural firms that came together specifically for this project. Richard von Luhrte of RNL Design oversaw the entire project, while Ron Mason of Anderson Mason Dale was in charge of design.

Mason's design for Ocean Journey is a marvelous example of the international craze toward neo-modernism. Architectural modernism's obituary was written twenty years ago, when postmodernism was the style of choice for many of the world's most important architects and architecture critics. But modern has since been revived, as buildings such as Ocean Journey demonstrate. However, designers like Mason have learned from the postmodernists and, like them, are interested in reviving formerly archaic elements in order to create visual interest in their buildings.

The elaborate brickwork, the riggings that support the elevated outdoor deck, and the glass-and-aluminum curtain walls all elude to past modernist styles. Put together in an unlikely combination -- Chicago-style brickwork set against Miesian windows, for example -- they lend a thoroughly contemporary appearance to Ocean Journey. And Mason has seen to every detail: The windows match the stairway railings, which in turn match the benches and even the trash cans. Truly a total-design approach.

Ocean Journey is made up of three distinct environmental displays designed by Joseph Wetzel of Amaze Design of Boston. Tucson's Larson Company did the faux rock work, which is made of sprayed-on Gunite. Both companies worked for Odyssea and were hired after the concept was developed, a first for this kind of project.

Because Ocean Journey is built on the flood plain of the Platte River, the building has no basement, and most of the exhibits are on the second floor. This created special engineering problems, since some of the tanks weigh as much as 2.5 million pounds. Structural engineer S.A. Miro worked with Odyssea and Ocean Journey's builder, Hensel Phelps Construction Company, to come up with the innovative raised design that allows visitors to pass below some of the tanks.

The aquarium's two main exhibits are the River Journeys, which follow the course of two rivers from their headwaters to their outlets in the sea. One follows the Colorado River, and it is here that Ocean Journey reconciles itself to our region. The other follows the Kampar River in Indonesia. The pairing is clever, since both rivers begin at around 12,000 feet in elevation and wind up in the Pacific Ocean. Each river is accompanied by an appropriate collection of fish, animals, birds and plants.

The placement and configuration of the clear-acrylic tank windows provide many visual treats, including colorful fish and aquatic plants -- and some fake coral. The effect is breathtaking where the tank windows arch over our heads and in the already-famous clear-acrylic tunnel.

There is one exhibit on the lower level: the acrylic enclosed pool devoted to the Pacific North American sea otter, an endangered species whose habitat is off the coast of northern California. This popular attraction was a late addition and is unrelated to the theme embraced by the rest of the aquarium.

It is laudable that an art committee was created by Ocean Journey to select pieces to adorn the facility. Members of the committee included Petersen-Fleming, Mason, art dealer Jim Robischon and art consultant Mimi Moore. What's special about this is that Ocean Journey is not a public project and wasn't required to have an art component at all. Compare this to the Denver Pavilions, which used its big chunk of public art money to pay for its sign!

Even more amazing is that Ocean Journey avoided the sickly sentimental: There are no statues of whales, as might be expected, and no huddling seals. Instead the artwork refers abstractly -- even conceptually -- rather than literally to the maritime theme.

The first piece of art that visitors see is outside, in the US West Park that surrounds the building. "Catch the Wave," by well-known Denver artist Barry Rose, comprises a series of low, undulating concrete walls adorned with colored aluminum water droplets. The multi-colored drops are also evocative of fish scales. The piece commemorates the donations of individuals and corporations; donors were asked to purchase water drops, which were then inscribed with their names.

"Passages of Water," by Japanese artist Masayuki Nagase with Michele Ku, comes into view as we approach the aquarium. It is a low-to-the-ground earthwork made of red granite that was quarried in Lyons and boulders from Jefferson County. The piece refers formally to the different parts of a river, from its mouth to its delta. The stones, some quite large, are set in gravel that further suggests the shape of a river. The piece is a playground for visiting children, and the artist's intention is that the children, climbing up and over the rocks, are meant to stand in for the water, which is otherwise a missing element.

Inside, Denver's Keith Chew has created a mammoth untitled copper wall that wraps around a good deal of the first floor and even appears on the second. Panels that refer to the sea and the land have been carried out in various patinas ranging from blue-green to reddish-brown. The panels have been arranged in a diagonal pattern. As in the Rose sculpture, the surface handling of the Chew evokes fish scales.

Further on, Connecticut artist Tim Prentice has created a series of five remarkable kinetic sculptures called "Full Fathom Five." Four of them hang from the fifty-plus-foot ceiling of the lobby and its grand staircase. One hangs above the entry to the two River Journeys on the second floor.

The "Banners" element of "Full Fathom Five" is a large and complicated series of tubes, rods and sheets of aluminum. It is viewed against the handsome red-brick wall, and it is divided into horizontal and vertical patterns. Small, thin squares of aluminum sheeting arranged in horizontal grids hang from flexible supports made of tubes. Five such grids hang in roughly parallel rows at various heights vertical to the floor.

The remaining four elements of "Full Fathom Five" can be seen after visitors complete their tour of the two River Journeys, on the way to the gift shop and restaurant.

The first of these, "Floating Squares," also uses grids of aluminum squares, but they've been hung horizontally, parallel to the floor. The next, "Zinged," which incorporates translucent white Lexan instead of aluminum, is hard to see against a backdrop of sinuous glass-and-aluminum curtain walls and the view behind them. That is somehow avoided in the third piece, "Seaweed," in which a series of plastic loops have been hung vertically in gentle, naturalistic curves.

The best part of "Full Fathom Five" is "Silverfish," a pair of mobiles that resemble a school of fish, despite the fact that Prentice makes no literal reference to the creatures.

It was Robischon who brought Prentice to the attention of Ocean Journey's art committee. Appropriately, his Robischon Gallery is now presenting Tim Prentice, a gorgeous show that focuses on Prentice's recent work, including some of the maquettes for the Ocean Journey pieces.

In the window of the gallery is the study model for "Seaweed," a series of vertical drops of Lexan loops connected by fine aluminum rods. Though "Seaweed" is nominally kinetic, it moves very little, swaying gently like seaweed in nature. In the back of the gallery is the maquette for "Silverfish." This piece moves a great deal as the curved aluminum sheets spin around one another.

Robischon has installed oscillating fans to facilitate the movement of these sculptures; it is something needed at Ocean Journey, where they are fairly static.

"Tim was willing to go along with the [Ocean Journey] theme without having to change his work," says Robischon. To prove the point, Robischon has displayed many pieces unrelated to the maritime theme but still closely associated to "Seaweed" and "Silverfish." They consist of groups of identical shapes that have been suspended not only from the ceiling, but also from the wall.

Most of Prentice's pieces at Robischon are kinetic, but even those that are not suggest movement. This quality is seen in the three wall-mounted sculptures from the "Warped Plane" series. Using aluminum squares affixed to rods, Prentice makes wall reliefs that seem to billow in the wind.

One of the most spectacular sculptures at Robischon is "Banners," which, despite its title, is not the model for the piece with the same name at Ocean Journey. Using an elaborate two-part armature, Prentice hung a screen of aluminum squares which are hinged so that they move in waves.

Tim Prentice is a beautiful and lyrical show that provides a good background for "Full Fathom Five." But unlike that group of gigantic pieces, the smaller sculptures won't be on permanent display; sadly, they will be put away in a couple of weeks.

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