Hit Parade

It's business as usual for the Civic Center, Denver's premier urban space.

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building, by Daniel Libeskind, is the only unalloyed success story in this harangue, but that's only because the charisma of Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp subliminally intimidated everyone on the selection committee into being on their best behavior. Not only that, but Craig Miller, head of the architecture, design and graphics department at the museum, helped to pre-select those who vied for the job in the first place, à la Randy, Paula and Simon.

It's a different story with the Denver Newspaper Agency Building, by Newman, Cavender & Doane, which is nearing completion on West Colfax Avenue between Cheyenne and Cleveland places. But even if the building is hardly the masterpiece the Hamilton is, it's not so bad, either. I think the secret to this particular success is that since it is being built by a private company instead of by the city, the owners were able to sidestep almost the entire politicized committee process (though the design was vetted by the landmark commission) and thus didn't have to fend off a lot of bad ideas. The DNA simply hired a developer and an architect to come up with a building that is sensitive to its neighbors and resonates with the massing of the Webb Building on the Cheyenne Place side and the Annex I on Colfax Avenue. The structure's white panels work beautifully with the similar treatment seen on Charles Strong's former Petroleum Club Building from 1957, immediately to the north.

Despite the good examples provided by the Hamilton and the DNA building, it's back to business as usual for the Justice Center, which will go up on West Colfax Avenue next to the United States Mint. Neo-modernist Steven Holl was chosen for the courthouse, with neo-traditionalists Hartman-Cox Architects selected for the jail. The less-than-ideal pairing is similar to the way things played out at the Central Library in that the picks represent a compromise instead of the optimal call. The fact that the two approaches are antithetical didn't seem to occur to the committee members -- or at least not to a majority of them. Mayor John Hickenlooper reserved the right to accept or reject the committee's recommendations, but he did not tweak them at all. Maybe, like the committee members, he didn't realize that Holl is the opposite of Hartman-Cox.

Denver's front room, the perpetually endangered Civic 
Denver's front room, the perpetually endangered Civic Center.

Now we're finally ready to talk about those future plans for our beloved Civic Center, which are being hatched by the Civic Center Conservancy. The group has been working with a new master plan by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Some of the ideas that have wafted out from the secret meetings are really outrageous, like a 300-foot-plus observation tower in the middle of the park. More practical, if the goal is getting rid of transients, is the idea of creating an enormous four-inch-deep pond that can be easily drained to create a huge concrete patio for special events such as the People's Fair. The conservancy has also talked about knocking down the Gio Ponti-designed wall around the sculpture garden at the DAM. This bunch has got to be stopped.

Most of those involved in the conservancy come from the few hundred people who really run Denver and who make their decisions based on serving their own interests. If by chance someone with vision does get involved, as happened with preservation-minded developer David Cohen, who served on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, he is forced out. Intelligence and sensitivity just get in the way when there's a job to do. It's interesting that the people you'd want to have on the conservancy, such as Carolyn Etter and Elizabeth Schlosser, are not involved and have both spoken out about some of the worst of the leaked ideas.

The stories above cover the administrations of Federico Peña, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper, but even though the names of the mayors have changed, the makeup of the crew involved has essentially remained the same. Several people working on the Justice Center and the Civic Center Conservancy were involved in one or more of the earlier bad calls. You could say that it's simply a case of pearls being cast before swine, but anyone can see that most of the decisions concerning the Civic Center, the city's premier urban space, have hardly been ideal. And the word "ideal" is a perfect one, because all I'm talking about are ideas.

Members of the conservancy have complained that people are denouncing their plan even before it's been unveiled, but I know from experience that once they do reveal their big ideas, it will be too late to stop them.

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