Prescription for Success

The MCA's drug show is not as intoxicating as its proposed new building.

PILLish doesn't quite jell, but it's hard to be too critical of Payton for that, since she's been so darned busy with other things. For the last year and a half, she's been spearheading the drive to get the MCA a new building.

The whole thing began when Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss gave the MCA a tract of land in the Platte Valley at 15th and Delgany streets. The lot, worth some $800,000, is part of a development being done by Falcone's company, Continuum Partners. Surrounding the new building will be Art House, a group of luxury townhouses, and the mid-priced Monarch Mills loft project, which is being sub-developed by Urban Ventures. Denver's Studio Completiva designed all but one of the Art House townhouses, as well as Monarch Mills and the site's master plan.

After the announcement of the gift of land, Payton launched an international design competition that began in late 2003 and continued into early 2004 in which six architectural firms made public presentations of their work to packed houses of museum supporters and building enthusiasts. This past April, Britain's Adjaye/Associates, headed up by David Adjaye, was chosen as the winner.

Detail of "Vial Piece," by Tom Fruin, mixed-media wall 
hanging.
Detail of "Vial Piece," by Tom Fruin, mixed-media wall hanging.
Model of the proposed MCA building, by David 
Adjaye.
Model of the proposed MCA building, by David Adjaye.

At the same time she was shepherding the design competition, Payton was also beating the bushes for construction funds. And though the capital campaign has not yet been launched, she's already lined up nearly $4.5 million in land, gifts and promises. A cost estimate for the new building has not yet been set, but $15 million is a number that's been kicked around, which is a lot more realistic than the $4 million estimate that was originally put forward by the MCA.

A couple of weeks ago, Adjaye was in town to unveil a model of the new building. It is an extremely simple and elegant structure that represents a revitalized architectural modernism that could be called post-post-modern, or neo-modern for short. Adjaye combines elements associated with various first-generation modernist styles, but he expresses it in new ways, so he can't be called a revivalist. Appropriately, members of Studio Completiva, which is doing the other projects associated with the new MCA, are homegrown proponents of the same neo-modern design concepts.

The building will be rectilinear and completely covered in UV protective glass backed on three sides by translucent plastic sheeting. This will allow the walls to glow inside during the daytime while glowing from the outside at night. There are also light wells on the roof, which will provide indirect and UV-safe lighting to the galleries and other interior spaces. There is no visible entry; rather visitors will follow a processional outdoor corridor to the hidden main door. This is either like the passage into a sacred space or to a subway, depending on your taste in imagery. The interior plan is conceived as though it were three separate buildings connected by passages. In a break from what has become a standard for recent museum design, the interior will not feature big flexible spaces, but instead, discrete rooms devoted to specific art forms. This was something Payton wanted after she and the architect selection committee studied new museums around the world.

In Adjaye's proposed MCA, there's a lot of Miesian content, but it's in the detailing and not in the conceptual underpinning. There's also an elaborate cubist combination of masses, visible especially inside and on the roof, that harks back to the international style of the 1920s and '30s. I couldn't help also thinking of Edward Durell Stone, the ultra-formalist of the mid-twentieth century. And believe it or not, there's an African element to the building, too -- at least according to Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania, where his father was a diplomat. Simple patterns, such as the stacked design in the glazing of the glass curtain walls, are a significant part of the African aesthetic, he notes.

Based on the model, and even more on Payton's well-tested ability to get things done, I'd say the new MCA is set to be one of the city's greatest new landmarks. I can't wait until it's finished in 2006.

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