Future Tense

Two new landmarks with Mile High ambitions are coming online downtown.

Construction workers are finishing up one of the first high-rises to be built downtown in about twenty years. It's the new Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel, at 14th and California streets. For a decade now, the severe under-performance of the Colorado Convention Center has been laid at the feet of the hotel industry, with the explanation that no hotel was large enough to house the attendees of big conventions. That situation will change next month when the Hyatt opens, adding 1,100 guest rooms. The spiffy skyscraper is not one of the largest or the tallest buildings downtown, but it is already one of the most distinctive.

Before I praise the not-yet-completed structure, it makes sense to briefly survey the sordid history of the whole convention-center hotel issue. First and foremost, the pronounced lack of a sufficiently large hotel was the rationale that doomed the 1950s hyperbolic paraboloid, plaza and retail block of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza. Zeckendorf Plaza was at Court Place and the 16th Street Mall before it was lost to demolition and insensitive changes in 1996. According to Fred Kummer, an out-of-town developer, these distinguished pieces of the city's architectural heritage had to go to make room for his Adam's Mark Hotel, which would lodge conventioneers -- who, ironically, didn't show up anyway. Today only the old hotel tower at Zeckendorf Plaza survives from the original Pei complex.

The loss of Pei's creations has to be one of the greatest civic failures carried out during the Wellington Webb administration. It constantly crosses my mind how much its destruction architecturally diminished our city. It's a pity that the place no longer exists now that outstanding examples of contemporary architecture are being built within blocks of where the plaza was.

Rendering of the east side of Daniel Libeskind's 
Hamilton Building with Gio Ponti's North Building.
Rendering of the east side of Daniel Libeskind's Hamilton Building with Gio Ponti's North Building.


Through October 2006, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000

But the vandalism to Zeckendorf Plaza isn't the only casualty in the pursuit of a large hotel: Temple Buell's Denver Post Building, a 1940s art moderne confection, was also demolished to provide the site for the new Hyatt.

Despite the building's ignoble beginning -- and putting aside the fact that the city built the hotel at public expense because there were no takers to do so in the private sector -- the new Hyatt is great-looking and makes an extremely nice addition to the city's skyline. Designed by the klipp firm, the hotel was conceived as a cluster of attenuated, vertically oriented rectangles that rise 37 stories. The proportions are perfect, giving the building a sleek profile. It's virtually drenched in neo-modernist ornamental details, including the dramatic corner windows, collectively dubbed "the glass canyon," facing the CCC.

Laudably, and surely in part because the project was city-funded, the Hyatt will be festooned with more than $2 million worth of custom-designed art pieces. Some of these works are being paid for through the city's "One Percent for Art" program, which requires 1 percent of hard costs on all city-funded projects to be set aside for public art, while others were commissioned by the Hyatt Corporation. Though some internationally known artists were selected, most of the pieces are to be done by Colorado artists, which I think is great.

The art, of course, is not yet in place, but it will be by the time of the projected opening, complementing the recent onslaught of new public-art pieces recently unveiled downtown. The current art craze in that area started with the CCC's program and stars two of the city's best outdoor artworks: "I See What You Mean," Lawrence Argent's big blue bear, which has fast become a symbol of Denver, and Bernar Venet's "Indeterminate Line."

Over the years, I've raised some considerable doubts about the need for the convention center and its hotel, but the art programs for both have been top-drawer. I can't wait to see the many pieces at the Hyatt when it's finished and open. Plus, unlike the CCC, which merely looks good thanks to the art and not the design, the Hyatt appears to be one of the best works of architecture in the whole city.

Speaking of the best works of architecture in the city, immediately going to the head of the list is the Denver Art Museum's still-under-construction Hamilton Building, which is set to open in fall 2006. Designed by international architecture star Daniel Libeskind, the remarkable structure is taking shape at the intersection of West 13th Avenue and Acoma Plaza, south of the museum's Gio Ponti-designed masterpiece.

Many readers will have followed the story of Daniel Libeskind's work at the World Trade Center site in New York, where his concept for the Freedom Tower was neutered by market considerations. Instead of a cluster of pointed forms, the tallest of which was to be a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials and other government types turned Libeskind's flight of fancy into a conventional high-rise with a spike on top. Because Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director, is a visionary and not a bureaucrat, he allowed Libeskind to give Denver the best building he could. As a result, we're getting a masterpiece and the Big Apple isn't.

At this point, I'm sure a lot of people are howling because they don't like the Hamilton, let alone consider it a masterpiece. The chief criticism I've heard is that the outrageous shape of the building makes it wasteful and violates the "form follows function" dictum of classic modernism. Well, love modernism as I do, it's long been eclipsed by post-modernism, which itself was checkmated by deconstructionism and neo-modernism, with the Hamilton having a little of both of those post-post-modern manners. That hardly makes Libeskind's design open to snipes from those armed only with historical ideas. Not only that, but I think you could argue that the form of this building does follow its function, because one of its functions is to call attention to itself -- and it has done that in spades.

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