Going Up and Coming Down

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

At the same time that the Webb administration and the city council laughed the Ocean Journey folks out of the City and County Building, they were committing another $300 million-plus for the now-more-than-half-a-billion-dollar, under-construction Colorado Convention Center and Hotel. Let's put this in perspective: Landry's picked up Ocean Journey for $13.6 million, or 3 percent of what the city has committed to spend on the Convention Center boondoggle. Now, there's something laughable.

Landry's plans to rename the place and wants to add other attractions, including amusement park rides, on the institution's extensive grounds. Let's hope they don't open a dining room in Ocean Journey proper, the idea of which strikes me as unbelievably tasteless. More important, let's hope they don't do anything to screw up the wonderful building. Landry's approach to architecture, as seen in their restaurants, leaves a lot to be desired, and now they've got their hands on a Denver landmark. I'm definitely worried.


"Currigan," by Christopher James, gelatin silver print.
"Currigan," by Christopher James, gelatin silver print.

I've worried a lot about endangered landmarks in Denver over the past ten years -- not that it's done any good for me or for the landmarks. I fretted about I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, and then it was substantially destroyed in its conversion to a convention-center hotel. Then I paced the floor as I thought of the impending doom surrounding Temple Buell's Denver Post Building, only to have it bite the dust to provide land on which to build a newer convention-center hotel. Later, there were the sleepless nights spent over the inescapable fate of the Terracentre by Alfred Williams for Seracuse/Lawlor, imploded last year to provide space for the expansion of the convention center. Close to that same time, Currigan Hall, by James Ream for William Muchow, went for the same reason.

The destruction of Currigan, as conveyed in a black-and-white digital photo that takes in its rubble and stripped frame during the demolition, is the starting point for Elegy: Contemporary Ruins, which is midway through a four-month run at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. The photo of the building in its death throes is hard to look at but impossible to miss.

The provocative piece, titled "Currigan Hall Sunset," was taken by Katharine Smith-Warren, who served as the MCA's guest curator for this show. As I stood in front of the heartbreaking shot, Warren explained how the demolition of the building had been a turning point for her and many others and led to the formulation of this show. Historic preservation and its natural enemy, demolition, are two of a number of themes that Smith-Warren lays out in the exhibit. She also touches on politics, sociology, even beauty.

All of these issues come together in Camilo José Vergara's group of a dozen C-prints, all taken from the same angle, of the same subject. Between 1994 and 2002, Vergara recorded the Ransom Mills Mansion as it slowly crumbled. Interestingly, the loss of Currigan and the loss of the mansion are the result of completely opposite causes: Currigan disappeared because there was too much money flying around here in town, but the mansion was lost because there wasn't enough in Detroit's 8 Mile area, where it's marooned.

Todd Hido's large-format photos done in chromogenic prints are elegant depictions of newish but run-down low-income housing throughout the West. These Hidos, which fill an entire gallery, remind me of the work of Robert Adams, a onetime Coloradan who more or less invented the mundane-as-profound approach to photography. Catherine Opie also uses this style in her desolate St. Louis street scenes done in IRIS prints.

Photographer Ron Pollard is doing something very different, having created a wall-mounted installation called "Cinderella City," which comprises inkjet images and text panels. Pollard, a professional architectural photographer, roamed the halls of the now-demolished shopping center capturing shots of the shabby yet elegant spaces. Pollard interspersed the photographic images with laudatory press accounts of the mall's opening, printed on panels in a rainbow of retro '60s colors.

Across from the Pollards are the Jeff Brouws black-and-white postcard views of abandoned gas stations done in homage to Ed Ruscha's pop-art paintings of gas stations. The silver-print photos by Brouws look both alike and different, and, according to Smith-Warren, have elicited the most comments of anything in the show.

The exhibit continues upstairs on the mezzanine, beginning with the black-and-white and color photos by Robert Dawson. A shot like "Flooded Salt Air Pavilion" conveys, as much as anything else in this exhibit, the idea of an elegy. A different feeling is evoked in "Tower at Abandoned Radar and Nike Missile Base"; if you didn't know better, you'd think the tower was some kind of modern grave-marker. I guess, in a sense, it is.

Opposite the Dawsons are half a dozen photos by Patrick Nagatani, three of which are perhaps the most haunting photos in this show. They are color depictions of the scant remains of three relocation camps where Japanese-Americans, like Nagatani's parents, were sent during World War II.

Finally, at the end of the show is a selection of Christopher James's signature night scenes in gelatin silver prints that bring us back to Denver. In "Paraboloid I," it's Zeckendorf Plaza; in "Grandma's House," it's Lincoln Park, where James's grandmother lived; and lastly, "Currigan," in which the collapsing building is dramatically lit by the moon and the ambient city lights.

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