Park and Wreck

Will defacing the Civic Center be the mayor's legacy?

Last month I wrote a piece about the Civic Center Conservancy in which I implied that the group's members were a bunch of clowns ("Civic Circus," August 10). In the weeks since, I've really come to regret that metaphor and feel a little guilty. After all, clowning is an honorable and age-old art form that traces its history back to the comedies of the ancient Greeks and the stock characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte of the Italian Renaissance. For heaven's sake, there are even clown colleges.

No, the members of the conservancy aren't clowns; they're dim-witted, self-serving vandals. They've proven it over and over again, with the coup de grace being Daniel Libeskind's ludicrous conceptual ideas for "enlivening" the Civic Center.

The first mistake the group made was hiring Libeskind. Don't get me wrong: I think Libeskind is a genius. His design for the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum is a world-class masterpiece that I absolutely love. But for the Hamilton, Libeskind was given a tabula rasa -- an essentially empty site -- which is the kind of situation where he really shines. Libeskind is not very good at incorporating existing landmarks with established character, as his odd suggestions for the Civic Center prove. Designing for and around historic buildings and complexes is a specialty in contemporary architecture, and he doesn't have that particular skill.

Daniel Libeskind's ridiculous ideas for Denver's 
beloved Civic Center.
Daniel Libeskind's ridiculous ideas for Denver's beloved Civic Center.

Still, Libeskind is hardly dumb -- but the same cannot be said for the Civic Center Conservancy and its choice of architect. I don't think the Civic Center needs a facelift, but even if it did, wouldn't you want someone who knows how to deal with places in the Civic Center's league, such as Robert A. M. Stern, and not someone who obviously doesn't, like Libeskind?

The set of historic, modern and contemporary buildings that surround the park, along with the park itself, are representative collectively and individually of the utopian City Beautiful Movement that took hold in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and focused on improving the nature of settled life. Everything was designed in relation to its surrounding environment so that it would all come together as a coherent whole. Even the initial design, which was created before there were any other buildings in the immediate area, was a response to the neo-classicism of the State Capitol off to the east.

Before discounting all of Libeskind's ideas, it's important to understand what the Civic Center is, so that we can also understand what it isn't. The Civic Center is a ceremonial space, essentially the city's front lawn, not a back yard filled with year-round cookouts, as the conservancy envisions. That would be great, wouldn't it? It would mean having some of the city's key intersections shut down too often, and the predictable paralysis of downtown's traffic. Hey, did anyone try to get around downtown during the Taste of Colorado? I did; it was a nightmare.

There isn't much -- in the city, state, region or country -- that measures up to the Civic Center, and the National Register of Historic Places has recognized that. Strictly speaking, the Civic Center, which was laid out by Edward Bennett nearly ninety years ago, runs from Colfax Avenue on the north to the West 14th Avenue Parkway on the south, and from Broadway on the east to Bannock Street on the west. The site plan of the Civic Center is about symmetry. The City and County Building, the definitive structure of the group, was sited to line up with the much-older State Capitol a couple of blocks away. This established the park's principal east-west axis. Then there's the chief north-south axis, running from the central arch of the Voorhies Memorial to the central portal of the Greek Theatre, which are physically linked to one another by a walkway. There's also some pseudo-symmetry, such as the relationship of the Permit Center south of the City and County Building to the Annex I portion of the Wellington Webb Building to the north.

This carefully conceived and aesthetically effective symmetrical device is signature neo-classicism, and Libeskind's plan would destroy it. His proposal would take up a good deal of the west end of Civic Center Park with six-inch-deep reflecting pools that could be drained to provide patio space for special events and, in season, an ice-skating rink. These water features exemplify Libeskind-ian geometry, taking the form of arching triangles or more complicated triangulated shapes, as does the paved plaza that is suggested for behind the old Carnegie Library. Were these pieces to be built, they would throw off the east-west axis, shifting it to the north in places and to the south in others. In the center of the park, Libeskind proposed a circular plaza with a seventy-foot light and water tower. The placement of this plaza is east of the main north-south axis, thus annihilating that, as well.

There are a number of other devices that Libeskind used to deconstruct the formal neo-classical symmetry, most obviously the absurdly large pedestrian bridge that would run from the northeast corner of the park to the roof of the RTD station across Broadway. The bridge is pointless from a functional standpoint, since people will still have to cross Broadway and/or Colfax. Libeskind's goal for the bridge was to "open up" the Civic Center, but since its inception, everything has been about enclosing the park so that it reads like an outdoor room. This bridge does more to destroy the aesthetics of the Civic Center than anything else Libeskind has suggested.

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