Un-Conventional

The expansion of the Colorado Convention Center promises to do more harm than good.

Voters will have a chance to decide on two proposals during Tuesday's election that should be of great interest to the art world.

The first is a no-brainer. Who would begrudge the Denver Art Museum a lousy $62.5 million -- about the price of one good Van Gogh -- to fund the construction of a new, freestanding wing? The relatively modest sum is a few million less than the museum originally asked for since Mayor Wellington Webb cut its request this summer -- standing tall, no doubt, against pork-barrel projects like museums.

The second, and less obvious, is the preposterous proposal to expand the Colorado Convention Center -- a facility that is already said to be obsolete even though it opened just nine years ago -- which Webb not only endorsed but raised the stakes on, from $200 million to $268 million.

To some, expansion of the CCC is absurd from an economic standpoint. From 1990 to 1995, its performance was abysmal; it only booked enough events to fill the place around 40 percent of the time. Bookings have risen to 71 percent in recent years, so there's almost enough business to fill up the CCC a little more than two-thirds of the time. Why should it be doubled in size now?

But this is not a business column. The fiduciary irresponsibility of the Webb administration, though interesting, is not the topic at hand. This is an art column, and from an artistic standpoint, the CCC's track record is even worse.

The CCC has been a plague on the city's architecture and the single greatest negative force in terms of the built environment downtown in the last 25 years.

The consequences of its construction were felt as soon as the CCC's site, then called the Silver Triangle, was selected in 1986. The area was a down-at-the-heels neighborhood with multi-story brick buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were originally small hotels or apartment buildings. In character and condition, it was a little LoDo -- and just like the LoDo of that time, its neglected buildings bristled with renovation potential. There's no doubt that had the Silver Triangle been spared the wrecking ball and not been chosen as the site for the CCC, it would be a lively residential, retail and entertainment-oriented neighborhood today, just like LoDo.

Not only did the CCC cost the city an entire historic neighborhood, but its contribution to the city's architecture was less than zero.

Completed in 1990 at a cost of $130 million, the CCC is a big dumb box done by the architectural firm of Fentress & Bradburn Associates. But their characterless carton -- which is adorned with a couple of glass-and-concrete ziggarats crudely pasted onto the building's two principal faces -- is way too big for its site; the ungainly behemoth eats up blocks of usable urban space.

Then there's the embarrassing vulgarity of what must be called -- for lack of a better description -- the CCC's style, a kind of art disco, a popular approach for convenience stores and strip malls in the 1980s when the CCC was, er, designed. And the interior! Dank, dark and uninviting. In the meeting and exhibition rooms, Fentress Bradburn created an effect that must have been nearly impossible to achieve: Despite their enormous size, the spaces somehow feel claustrophobic. The effect is almost perversely brilliant in its total failure as interior design.

Curt Fentress, the powerhouse behind the original architects, has tacitly admitted how bad the CCC really is by completely eliminating the look of the existing building in the elaborate drawings and conceptual model for the proposed new facility. If the expansion goes forward, the CCC would be stripped to its structural members in places and completely reconfigured and resurfaced. Believe me, I'm all for getting rid of the CCC on aesthetic grounds, but my practical side finds the idea, oh, just a tad wasteful. After all, the place isn't even ten years old!

The CCC's initial dull performance was explained by many as having to do with the lack of a hotel that was large enough to serve as a headquarters for big conventions. So in the mid-1990s, one was proposed. But there was a problem with this idea: economic reality. Market forces in Denver then (and now) did not allow for the private financing of such a hotel. So, if a convention center hotel was to be built, a big, fat public subsidy would be needed.

Thus began the next sad chapter in the CCC's assault on the city's cultural life -- the destruction of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was built between 1956 and 1960 at 16th Street and Court Place.

The plaza was an early and important commission for Pei, who was just then emerging as a major modern architect. Only a few other works of architecture in Colorado are as fine as Zeckendorf Plaza was.

As it stood, the plaza comprised four elements, three of which are now gone. The hotel tower, which still stands, was originally part of an elaborate spatial relationship that began below ground and continued to the top of the high-rise. At the bottom was the sunken ice-skating rink, set in an open plaza. At the edge of this courtyard was the famous hyperbolic paraboloid, a pyramidal glass-and-steel concoction that really sang. And climbing above the paraboloid was the chaste, multi-story box that once served as a department store. All three of these elements led the eyes up to the hotel tower in a joyful arc.

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