Changing Views

Additions to downtown's built environment and possible subtractions in the hinterlands.

Daniel Libeskind must be happy with Denver since, unlike in New York, the Polish-born American architect has been allowed to follow his vision to its logical conclusion. In New York, Libeskind's Freedom Tower, which will be erected on the site where the World Trade Center once stood, was neutered and made conventional. Here in Denver, on the other hand, he's been encouraged to pull out all the stops for the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building. That's why Denver is going to wind up with a signature Libeskind complex, and New York is not.

The Hamilton Building is rising like a vision from 13th Avenue and what would be Acoma Street if it hadn't been vacated to provide a future front lawn. Being able to watch this apparition emerge from the ground has been an ongoing treat. As its multi-planar form began to emerge this past spring and summer, it really looked like an enormous modernist sculpture. But as the titanium cladding goes on, it's easier to imagine it as a solid, and the brilliance of its urban design features is beginning to emerge.

From every direction, the outlandish building, which is both crystalline and cacophonous, becomes an immediate focal point. It looks stupendous from the south, where it provides a centerpiece for a picture-perfect view of the skyline. As viewed from the Civic Center to the north, it peeks out from behind Acoma Plaza, perfectly filling the opening created by the existing DAM and the Denver Public Library.

Model of the Hamilton Building and its surrounding 
complex, by Daniel Libeskind.
Model of the Hamilton Building and its surrounding complex, by Daniel Libeskind.

I've liked the Libeskind design from the start, but I did think he was spinning a preposterous yarn when he said his design was partly a response to the existing art museum. Oh, please, I thought, what a shmoozer. The current DAM is a masterpiece by Italy's Gio Ponti, done in collaboration with Denver's James Sudler. It's fairly outrageous formally and in its details, especially the glass tiles that cover its many elevations. How in heaven's name was the Libeskind going to relate to the Ponti?

Well, guess what? I was wrong. Libeskind's building addresses the Ponti in a variety of ways. The most obvious example is the use of the titanium panels on the Hamilton, which is a kindred feature to the tiles on the old building. Not only that, but the cladding material on both buildings is arranged in alternating geometric patterns.

In other Libeskind-related news, the first phase of the housing component of the project, called Museum Residences, was unveiled a month or so ago and is already more than 50 percent sold -- even before construction has begun. The 56 luxury condominiums are priced from $350,000 to $1.5 million and are part of a mixed-use project that will also include shops and restaurants. The second phase calls for the construction of a residential tower, but that won't even start for a couple of years. The condominiums, the restaurants, the shops and the tower were all a part of the original model of the Hamilton Building done by Libeskind. The Hamilton is conceived as the centerpiece of an elaborate rhythm of forms. On the north, it will be held in check by the wall-as-gateway created by the Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library and the Ponti DAM; on the south side, the spike of the not-yet-constructed tower will serve the same purpose. I think it's going to be fabulous.

Less encouraging has been the soap opera -- by which I mean a turbulent story filled with bad dialogue -- concerning the Commercial Federal Savings Bank at 4301 South Broadway. The owners, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, want to tear the lovely thing down, while some civic-minded people in Englewood want to stop them. At the same time, the City of Englewood is developing guidelines for rehabilitating the down-at-the-heels South Broadway corridor, while preservationists have identified the bank, the work of legendary Denver architect William Muchow, as being among the most important buildings on South Broadway in Englewood. This is called being between a rock and a hard place -- a typical story in historic preservation.

Let's put the issue in the context of Englewood's built environment: The most important period of the town's history is the 1950s and &'60s, when it boomed as a Denver suburb. It was during this time that the first architecturally significant buildings were constructed. The most famous examples are the more than 100 modernist houses in Arapahoe Acres, located northwest of the intersection of Dartmouth Avenue and South Franklin Street. It was master-planned by Eugene Sternberg, with most of the houses done by Edward Hawkins. The neighborhood became the first post-war development in the country to be listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's recently been the subject of a guidebook published by Historic Denver. Also noteworthy are the handsome, mostly small modernist banks located in the old central business district, including Muchow's Commercial Federal and Charles Deaton's out-of-this-world Colonial Bank, at 3501 South Broadway. That building, which looks like a flying saucer, is the closest thing in the metro area to the architect's world-famous Sculpted House in Genesee.

Now back to Commercial Federal. The building is composed of two related structures, with the north wing being slightly older than the south. Both are constructed of buff-colored brick with exposed-steel structural members used in lieu of ornament. The north wing, which is empty, is a raised pavilion surmounted by a squat roof made up of four pyramids. The south wing is somewhat submerged and is surrounded by a gravel-lined moat that allows sunlight into the garden-level windows. There's not much of visual interest on this part of South Broadway, so the bank stands out like a beacon, catching the eye of nearly every passerby. This alone makes the idea of destroying it absurd.

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