Civics Centered

Concerns about the Justice Center and the Civic Center, plus a Bronx cheer for Rick Ashton.

In May 2005, Denver voters approved the financing for a new multi-part Justice Center complex with a municipal courthouse and a jail to be built in the greater Civic Center area. I thought that particular spot, being right next door to the United States Mint, was such an odd choice that it bordered on slapstick comedy ("Blind Justice," March 3, 2005). And unfortunately, as with all things that start out on the wrong foot, the troubles are already starting to cascade.

Though the courthouse commission comes with less money than the jailhouse gig, it is clearly the high-status job, and some of the most important architects in the world competed for it, including Lord Norman Foster, Richard Meier and Robert A.M. Stern. Isn't it hard to believe that living legends would care about such a small deal? A selection committee chose Steven Holl for the courthouse, and though he is not as famous as Foster, Meier or Stern, he is still one of the architectural hotshots of our time. Where I see a potential problem is how the chosen jail architect, Hartman-Cox Architects (a solid and nationally known firm), will relate to Holl. The stylistic approaches of the two are utterly antithetical, as Holl is a leading neo-modernist while Hartman-Cox is up to its neck in neo-traditionalism. It's hard to imagine an odder couple teaming up to build separate elements of the same project; it's comparable to a collaborative work of art by Damien Hirst and Thomas Kincaid.

So how did this come to pass? Political compromise ruled the selection committee, and not good design judgment.

The Gio Ponti wall at the Denver Art Museum: Is it 
The Gio Ponti wall at the Denver Art Museum: Is it threatened?
The library that Rick Ashton didn't build.
The library that Rick Ashton didn't build.

The list of finalists for both the jail and the courthouse commissions included neo-modernists and neo-traditionalists, which I assume was so that stylistically compatible teams could be readily assembled for either building regardless of which approach was chosen. For example, if a neo-modernist was chosen for the courthouse, then the committee could easily select a neo-modernist from its list, and vice versa. But for that to have worked, the selection committee had to know something about architecture. As it is, I find it hard to imagine how the chosen designs can look good together -- unless that square peg, Hartman-Cox, can be forced into Holl's neo-modernist round hole, because no one's going to tell him what to do. One thing is for certain: As the project's master urban-design architect, David Owen Tryba Architects has its work cut out for it in making the various components function together coherently. Good luck.

But wait, here's yet another problem of architectural compatibility: A third component to the Justice Center complex, the parking garage/post office combination, is being done by AR7 HooverDesmondArchitects, which replaced the original selection, Barber Architecture. Oddly, the garage-and-post-office structure will be designed and built before the courthouse is even out of the conceptual stage. The courthouse clearly should be the pacesetter for the whole project, but because the garage and post office are going up first, that design can't possibly respond in any specific way to the future courthouse. At least AR7 is a dyed-in-the-wool neo-modernist firm, so its building should relate, at least broadly, to whatever Holl comes up with.

I can't help but think that with three separate buildings by three different designers, the Justice Center will not be simpatico overall. But I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

By putting the Justice Center west of the U.S. Mint, the greater Civic Center area extends halfway to Speer Boulevard along Colfax Avenue. On the other end, it runs up to Grant Street east of the State Capitol Building. It's the premier urban space in Denver and is ringed by some of the most important institutions in the state, many of which are housed in notable landmark buildings. The overall plan is neo-classical and is more than a century old. Its dignified design was intended to represent the highest civic values of the community, and it does a good job of that.

If I were Denver's planning czar in charge of the Civic Center, the first thing I'd do is shore up the area's borders where it abuts downtown, Capitol Hill and the Golden Triangle. Some selective demolition and preservation would be in order. All of the surface parking lots should be eliminated and replaced with either new buildings or additional green spaces, and there should be landscape improvements made to lawns and parks -- especially to the median on West Colfax Avenue.

That's about all that needs to be done, and nothing at all needs to happen to the heart of the area, Civic Center Park, more or less the front lawn of the City and County Building. Yet secret plans to monkey with it are being overseen by volunteers serving on the Civic Center Conservancy. Everything about the plan thus far is very hush-hush, and those Conservancy volunteers have been sworn to secrecy regarding the details. Stupid me, I thought the Civic Center was public.

Here's what I know: The city engaged Studio Daniel Libeskind to do some master planning for the Civic Center. I do love the Denver Art Museum's almost-completed Hamilton Building by Libeskind, but, frankly, he wouldn't be my first choice for dealing with a neo-classical plan like the Civic Center.

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