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.

In harm's way: Currigan Exhibition Hall.
In harm's way: Currigan Exhibition Hall.

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.

The relationship of the vertical high-rise to the horizontal low-rise buildings and open courtyard was a Pei signature. His approach has been copied by architects everywhere.

Once one of the city's premier spots, Zeckendorf Plaza had fallen on hard times by 1994, when it was picked as the most likely spot for a new hotel to bolster the flagging CCC. The department store was vacant and the hotel, a Radisson, was in a dingy and somewhat neglected condition. After a heroic struggle to save the plaza, led by Historic Denver and endorsed unanimously by the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, the city council folded -- as usual -- and in 1995, one of the city's finest examples of modern architecture was turned into hamburger.

The hotel is still standing -- as part of the Adam's Mark hotel -- but it has suffered the indignity of a garish interior redo and has been resurfaced on the first floor, where a protuberance of a new porte cochère has been appended at the main entrance. The courtyard is now a driveway, and the hyperbolic paraboloid has been replaced by an ugly neo-traditional storefront design that is a shameful use for all that good granite. The box has been popped a few floors and is now clad, Vegas-style, in black reflective glass.

These changes were paid for in large measure with public money. Fred Kummer, the out-of-town developer who built the Adam's Mark on the mutilated carcass of Zeckendorf Plaza, got $25 million in Denver Urban Renewal Authority money. (To get a feeling for how wonderful the plaza used to be, catch a glimpse of it from the back, on the Civic Center side, where the ugly changes are mostly hidden -- aside from a poorly designed Adam's Mark sign.)

But the renovation of the Adam's Mark wasn't even complete when, in 1996, the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau called for something else to help bolster the CCC: a 1,000-room convention headquarters hotel.

Hey, what a minute -- wasn't that why Zeckendorf Plaza was mauled?

Well, it turns out that the Adam's Mark, like the CCC, just isn't big enough.

This led to the next destructive episode: the 1998 demolition of the old Denver Post Building, a 1949-1950 terra-cotta, marble and aluminum moderne structure by Denver's famous Temple Buell (the architect, not the theater he paid for) that sat across from the CCC on 14th Street. Even before he bought the building, developer Bruce Berger sought an exemption from a moratorium on downtown demolition that is supposed to stop the creation of new surface parking.

Even though he already owned a number of surface parking lots, Berger convinced the city council that parking was only an interim use. The Post building needed to go, he said, not to provide room for cars but to make room for a new convention headquarters hotel. There was no developer for this dreamed-of hotel, but if the city was willing to put up, say, $50 million, Berger might convince someone to do it. Again Historic Denver and the landmark commission mounted a valiant fight, only to be crushed by their wealthier and therefore more powerful foe.

Let's review. As a direct result of the CCC, Denver has so far lost the historic Silver Triangle neighborhood, an I.M. Pei masterpiece and a Temple Buell gem.

And if the promoters of the CCC expansion have their way next Tuesday, things are going to get much, much worse. At stake is the very character of the city.

The addition is planned for the current site of the fabulous 1969 Currigan Exhibition Hall, which, like Zeckendorf, is one of the city's greatest architectural assets. Sadly, there has been no preservation struggle waged over the fate of Currigan. It was defused with a preposterous suggestion, endorsed and promoted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to dismantle and move the building. This bold plan, which is technically possible but not feasible, lulled preservationists into a kind of denial of the fact that the building is actually headed for the wrecking ball. Who could blame them for not having the heart to face another doomed campaign?

Currigan was the work of a group of Denver firms, led by W.C. Muchow Associates, which got the job by winning a national architectural competition. The principle designer was James Ream, who worked in collaboration with the chief structural engineer, Mike Barrett. Ream used Barrett's structural system, the then-experimental space frame, as his chief decorative device. The space frame, which allows great horizontal distances to be spanned without vertical supports, is made of ten-foot sections of steel. The edge of it is visible at the roof line, above the richly patinated rusted-steel panels on the walls. This expressed structure and the slit windows that punctuate all four sides give the building a visual lightness that compensates for its exaggerated horizontality.

Compare this to the CCC right across the street to get a quick course in architectural appreciation. As opposed to lightly sitting on its site, like Currigan does, the CCC lumbers across the land. For goodness sake, you can't even tell there's a hill underneath the building.

Inside, Currigan is spacious and filled with light. The rooms soar above your head, with city views glimpsed through the windows. Architect Fentress has frequently said that Currigan can't be saved and reused because there's little about it that works. Perhaps this makes Currigan superior to the CCC -- where nothing works. Currigan's design is intelligent and, as a consequence, elegant. It's a creative process little understood by those who have cast their lot with the nonsense of CCC expansion.

Also on the chopping block if the expansion is approved is the perfectly fine and handsome 1982 Terracentre Tower designed by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawler and Partners. Now called the Terrace Building, at Speer and Stout, it is sleek and urbane and fully of its time. Constructed of a dramatically sculpted concrete frame fitted out with tinted windows, the building features a wedge of floors at the bottom that step back to the tower above. An unintended attribute of the building (since it was built several years before) is that it blocks the CCC from view when you're headed southeast on Speer.

Speer Boulevard itself, however, will also be a casualty of the proposed expansion. The building, if constructed, would contain approximately one million square feet, more than many of downtown's largest skyscrapers, and would come right up to Speer, where its gigantic bulk would damage the spatial relationships of this green sward, which is one of the city's most valuable urban equities. (If only a gifted urban designer was at the helm of the city's planning office, he or she would surely have noticed.)

Damage would also be done to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which would be adjacent. In the conceptual model of the CCC presented to the public by Fentress Bradburn, the spectacular DPAC is diminished, reduced to looking like a cluster of Tuff Sheds assembled behind an airplane hangar. Even Fentress acknowledges, at least in the model, that the building's size is a problem. To break up the huge horizontal mass of the roof, he has proposed lines of full-sized deciduous trees -- no kidding. I hope they're plastic, because real ones can't live up there.

Let's stop this terrible idea in its tracks and prevent the Colorado Convention Center from continuing its city-murdering rampage.

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