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Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art breaks ground on its new building.

Payton took the stage next, and her introduction was greeted with the first enthusiastic round of applause heard that day. "Wow," said Payton, "what a big moment." Then she added, "It's hot, in more ways than one," referring both to the blazing sun (she'd thought to bring a parasol) and to the exciting prospect of a sleek new home for the MCA.

She laid out three original goals for the building: first, that its "architecture supports rather than defines the museum's programming"; second, that "the project be economical"; and finally, that it would "qualify for LEED certification." According to Payton, the building designed by Adjaye will handily meet these three mandates.

The honor of introducing Adjaye fell to Ian Ruskey, one of the P.S. 1 students who had participated in the architect-selection process. Ruskey was very poised and well-spoken. He said that he and his fellow students had picked Adjaye because they really liked the way he talked, mentioning not only his ideas about architecture, but his "neat accent," too.

Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built 
Museum of Contemporary Art.
Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built Museum of Contemporary Art.

That neat accent was on display immediately after Ruskey concluded, with Adjaye noting in his upper-class British manner that the MCA is his first civic commission in the United States. "I started in art, and to have my first building in America be an art museum is incredible," Adjaye said. When I spoke with him later, he told me that one of the most remarkable things about the project was how easily it had come together compared with other projects he's done elsewhere. "It's been unbelievable," he told me. He also saluted the work of Brit Probst and Maria Cole, both of the Davis Partnership, who are the local architects helping to carry out his vision.

The building Adjaye has conceived is a gorgeous, exquisitely proportioned box that will be nestled among the almost-completed Art House Townhomes complex and an already fully occupied mid-rise loft building, Monarch Mills. Aside from the townhome that's been designed by Adjaye for Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss, the husband and wife who donated the land on which the MCA will rise, the Art House and Monarch Mills projects were designed by Colorado architects from the firm of Studio Completiva. When the museum is finished, this group of neo-modernist buildings will constitute one of the most chic-looking and best-designed neighborhoods in the whole city.

The Adjaye building will be three stories aboveground, with a rooftop garden on the top level and a basement below. Since the rooftop garden is enclosed behind the exterior walls, future expansion of the building could happen there, but otherwise there's no room to grow on the very tight lot.

The building will be clad in translucent glass panels so that at night it will glow like a lantern. The walls will be punctuated by thin vertical members applied to the exterior of all three levels. Interestingly, these verticals do not line up with one another, with each floor having its own arrangement. Adjaye has said on previous occasions that these vertical stripes were inspired by African motifs, but they also have something to do with modernist formalism.

The first floor will be recessed in places, with the main entrance hidden from the exterior. An opening at the northeast corner encloses a ramp that wraps around to the southwest side of the building, where visitors will enter. There will be five interior spaces for art displays, each of which will be dedicated to showcasing different kinds of art and will allow the MCA to present multiple features simultaneously. On the first floor, there will be a good-sized photography gallery and a smaller space for new media. Up the grand staircase will be the biggest of the five exhibition rooms, the large-works gallery, along with another capacious room, the works-on-paper gallery, and a smaller space called the projects gallery. All of these offer future naming opportunities for donors. In addition, there will be a bookstore and educational facilities, including what's been dubbed the "Idea Space," along with rooms for meetings and lectures, and, of course, a suite of administrative offices.

Construction on the new MCA is to begin within a couple of months, and completion is expected in spring 2007, by which time the initial excitement over the fall opening of Daniel Libeskind's Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum will surely have died down enough to allow the MCA to have its day.

MCA founder Sue Cannon, now trustee emeritus, did not address the crowd on the day of the groundbreaking, which was disappointing, but she did contribute a written statement. For Cannon, and for most of the rest of us, the MCA is a place where people will be able to "keep abreast of the art world" and where "local artists" will be helped to "survive and proliferate." To me, this last part is extremely important, because the DAM already does a good job of keeping tabs on the international scene, meaning it's the local scene that needs the MCA's support. By plugging into Denver's vibrant art world, not only will artists benefit, but so, too, will the MCA. Because without the support of the people around here, the new museum will be disconnected from its core constituency and, ultimately, will not flourish.

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