Edifice Complex

The new Webb Building gets a mixed review.

The rehab was not nearly as good as it could have been, and though its character survives, the building has unquestionably been defaced by wrongheaded and ultimately pointless changes. The first of these was the decision to raise the grade along MacIntosh Park, though the park itself remains at street level.

The Annex I used to sit on a low podium, and now it doesn't. There's no reason for this change, not even the one that's been put forward -- that it was a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are two other entrances to the building that do provide handicapped access, and that's all the ADA requires.

Another change is the addition of a door for a not-yet-open coffee shop. The sweeping horizontality of the front elevation -- its defining feature -- is sadly interrupted by this vertical entryway.

The new Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building.
Anthony Camera
The new Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building.
A Larry Kirkland installation adorns the forecourt of the building's main entrance.
Anthony Camera
A Larry Kirkland installation adorns the forecourt of the building's main entrance.

What's even more galling is that, because of security concerns, the added door will probably never be functional. To enter the Webb Building, visitors must pass through an airport-style security screening. Will the coffee shop have such a checkpoint? I doubt it. And won't that be a breach of building security? Yes. So while the door may never be used, its very existence degrades the front of the building.

Worse is the new entry canopy and the loss of the marvelous old one. Instead of matching Annex I, the unwanted replacement canopy seems to be a part of the new tower that looms above and behind it. Let's see: a cantilevered erection connected by material to the hulking tower, thrusting from the back and penetrating the front of the Annex I building. Hmmm. I'll leave the vulgar -- if highly appropriate -- metaphor alone.

But these changes are merely unfortunate. One that I'd characterize as potentially disastrous has apparently been scuttled, according to two of its biggest former boosters: architect David Tryba and Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who both personally assured me that the idea is dead.

This terrible notion, conceived by Denver graphic designer Elaine Shiramizu, was to have a poem by the late Colorado poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril carved into the north elevation of the old building, along 15th Street. Covering the wall with such permanent graffiti is an indefensibly bad suggestion, and it would be hard to imagine anything more inappropriate for a building done in the International style, which is characterized by a lack of decoration.

Another problematic element of the Annex I redo is the atrium, which connects the old building to the new tower. It's a handsome enough space, but I wonder why the old building wasn't allowed to stand alone, with the new building across an open courtyard. That way, the annex's dramatic west side, with its elegant glassed-in stair towers and sublime ribbon windows, would have been preserved. Instead, it's been partially cloaked, so that these fabulous exterior features are now interior elements that face the atrium.

There is one positive note at the south end of the atrium (which is the main entrance to the Webb Building). In the forecourt, which faces Colfax Avenue, is an installation by Washington, D.C.-based artist Larry Kirkland. As coordinator for the building's public art, Kirkland is, to some extent, to blame for Murase's installation and Shiramizu's idea. But his installation, which is anchored by a Janus-like head with opposing profiles, is a wonderful addition to the Civic Center's sculpture collection. The double head is made of stacked pieces of carved marble on a black granite base; a gilded plumb bob hangs in an open space in its center. The pavement surrounding the head contains black granite elements that reproduce a map of Denver, along with concentric circles made of square-cut cobblestones. The whole thing is beautiful; it works well with the complex and anchors the busy corner in a thoroughly successful way.

A concern that the heads' two noses could be hazardous to visually impaired pedestrians has been temporarily taken care of with the placement of wooden platforms on the ground below. Eventually, the platforms will be replaced with granite that matches the existing base.

Above and to the left of the atrium entrance is one of Shiramizu's word pieces. I don't object to her work appearing on the new building: The concept may be trite and dated, but it's been part of the plan from the start.

The quote, though, is ironic. It reads: "What Is The City But The People?" Don't think, however, that the word "people" here refers to you or me or the other citizens of Denver -- and this is where the irony comes in. On a plaque mounted on the wall at eye level, the query is reproduced, and below it is a list of names that includes Mayor Wellington Webb, Auditor Don Mares, the Denver City Council and the building's architects, developers and contractors. No, it's clearly not us being referred to in the quotation. It's them.

Once you enter the building, there is another Kirkland installation that appears to be a continuation of his outdoor piece. The two parts are clearly separate, with their connection being more conceptual than physical.

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