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.

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.


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.

Elegyis likely to leave viewers with a sense of sadness, and I think that's what Smith-Warren had in mind. "The word 'elegy' comes from the Greek word elegeia, which refers to lamentations," says Smith-Warren. And having lived in Denver for the last decade and watched what's happened to our ever-smaller stock of historic buildings, I know I feel like wailing.

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