Going Up and Coming Down

Architects and architecture are in the news and on the walls of Denver's MCA.

Daniel Libeskind, an architect with a Denver connection, made a worldwide stir a couple of weeks ago when he was chosen to design the replacement for New York's World Trade Center. And you saw it predicted here first, weeks before the decision was made -- and without the use of Michael Jackson's voodoo priests.

Three years ago, Libeskind was selected as the designer of the soon-to-be-erected freestanding wing of the Denver Art Museum. At the time, he was a hot up-and-comer with only one building to his credit, the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Now, with the most important commission of our time in his lap, he's one of the most significant architects of the 21st century. This will raise the profile of his Denver project dramatically, since it is scheduled to be completed just as the New York project breaks ground. It's an unfolding bonanza that's even more than endlessly optimistic DAM director Lewis Sharp could possibly have hoped for.

The new wing of the DAM is conceived as one part of a three-building complex. The first phase, the parking garage, is about to open. And next month, ground is to be broken on the second phase, the museum wing. No date has been announced for the third component, a residential high-rise to be erected with private funds.

I had worried that Denver's sinking economy would sink this last piece, severely damaging the overall composition aesthetically. The spiky tower is an essential element that will link the distinctive new wing to the equally distinctive existing building by Gio Ponti and James Sudler. The tower will also help to visually contain the all-but-uncontainable jagged form of the wing. But with Libeskind having scored the World Trade Center plum, I'm sure investors will be lining up, the economy be damned. Thank goodness!


Another architect who is well known in Denver also turned up in the news lately; this story, though, was not about a triumph, but about a tragedy. Curt Dale, a principal in the distinguished architectural firm of Anderson Mason Dale, was killed last month in an avalanche in Colorado's high country. Though Dale's companions dug him out of the snow immediately after the accident, he died some hours later. The area where the avalanche occurred is hardly remote, but it is rugged, and the Chaffee Country Sheriff's Office and the Chaffee County Search and Rescue had to call in a National Guard helicopter to remove Dale's body.

Dale's firm has been involved in the design of a number of high-profile buildings that went up during the boom of the past few years. These include the Daniels School of Business, on the campus of the University of Denver; the just-opened Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse, at 901 19th Street; and one of the best structures to rise in the Platte Valley, Ocean Journey.


Ocean Journey has also been in the news, as it has been from the day it debuted in 1999 as a non-profit institution open to the public. At the time, it seemed crazy that founders Bill Fleming and Judy Petersen-Fleming wanted to put an aquarium in the capital of landlocked Colorado. Their pipe dream worked for a while, but now it's gone, and something very different is set to take its place.

I thought Ocean Journey was a wonderful addition to the stock of cultural equities in Denver. It was an aquarium, which, like a zoo or a botanical garden, is something worth having in a city. Even more important, from my point of view, is that the building itself is so well done.

The design, by Ronald Mason, another principal of Anderson Mason Dale, is both intelligent and poetic, characteristics sorely lacking in most new buildings. The masonry core subtly recalls the old railroad-era buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods. The undulating aluminum and glass walls refer to the space-age future of the barely off-the-ground redevelopment of the Platte Valley. And don't forget the custom-created Tim Prentice mobiles that hang in the main pavilion.

Unfortunately, attendance wasn't up to those overly optimistic, Arthur Andersen-style projections put together at first, but they weren't all that bad, either. And the debt load wasn't all that large -- not in the big picture of such things, anyway. But the attendance was bad enough, and the debt big enough, to bring it all down. The death knell came when the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District rejected Ocean Journey's request to be included for funding.

So now the salad days are over, and the salad-bar days are set to begin. In what could only be described as a far-fetched treatment for an upcoming Simpsons episode, Landry's, the Houston-based seafood-restaurant chain, purchased Ocean Journey. It would be hilarious if it weren't so sad.

My sadness has nothing to do with bashing Landry's, but with the failure of the political leadership in Denver to come up with a way to save Ocean Journey. The administration of Wellington Webb and the city council failed to bail out the aquarium, allowing the conversion of what was essentially a public institution (though not publicly funded) into what will become a private asset with its fortunes at the whims of out-of-town owners, not unlike what happened to the nearby Elitch's -- I mean, Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

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