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Maria Cole deserves a gold star. Because while the attention of the international art world is all trained on man-of-the-moment Daniel Libeskind, this Davis Partnership architect has been humbly leading the city's artistic evolution.
Cole is quiet and understated, more prone to self-deprecation than fighting for any of Denver's reflected limelight. But if some of it happened to shine her way, it would reveal a forty-year-old woman who's the lead local architect on the Denver Art Museum's Frederic C. Hamilton wing, which opens this weekend; the Denver architect on the David Adjaye-designed Museum of Contemporary Art building; the chairwoman of the public-art program for the new Justice Center Complex; a member of the Mayor's Commission on Cultural Affairs; founder and director of the non-profit Architectural Laboratory; and the designer behind Columbine High School's renovation. And she's a Denver native.
"I've always been interested in art, so somehow, magically, my hobby and my main interest have become my career. It's very lucky.... My dad was an engineer, my mom was an artist, and I kind of got half of both of those minds. And my mom runs an art gallery, so I grew up coming downtown and going to the art museum, so it's a great irony that I got to work on the new museum," Cole says over a plate of homemade pasta, excited for any reason to cook since her life is currently filled more with six-packs and deli sandwiches than square meals and healthy choices.
But every nutritional sacrifice has been worth the opportunity to work with Libeskind. "Daniel is a great, gentle man," Cole says. "He is very charismatic, a great architect. I think the quality I learned from him -- and [DAM director] Lewis Sharp -- is that they empower everyone they come in contact with, and they recognize their contributions and they foster their strengths. For me, that's been the most amazing part of this experience."
And when did that experience begin? When Cole made her first trip to the DAM as a child? When she started at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in 1984, intent on becoming an architect? Or when she started at the Davis Partnership in 1991 after traveling the world and working with Habitat for Humanity in Pennsylvania? Or perhaps in 2001, when her boss, Davis partner Brit Probst, rewarded her hard work and award-winning designs with the DAM assignment and asked her to see the project all the way through construction. Or maybe it was the moment her plane left the tarmac at Denver International Airport, taking her to live in Berlin for six months and work at Studio Daniel Libeskind.
"The studio was fantastic," Cole remembers. "It was very much like going back into an academic environment, with these models all over the place. There was no sign on the street; you just had to know Studio Daniel Libeskind, and you would walk back into these two inner courtyards -- which were shared by a school, so there's tons of kids coming in and out -- and then you climb up the stairs and it's a series of small rooms, almost like it was an apartment building. Each of the rooms was set up with a different project, and usually it was set up by nationality. We were in Denver, so we were all Americans speaking English, but you'd go next door and it was a project going on in Spain, and they were all Spaniards speaking Spanish, and there's one in Israel, so it was fun how it was this cultural cross-section.
"Architecture is the coolest way to see the world," she adds. "Architecture is a way to understand what people are thinking. It's the ultimate reflection of people's values and who they are as a society."
Now this particular experience is nearing the end, and Cole has already finished the most challenging part of the work on the MCA's new home, a completely different kind of project without the DAM's level of collaboration and time commitment. "The museum wanted a building that pushed the edges and is a piece of artwork itself," she explains. "With the MCA, their program is essentially that the building should support the artwork, not define the artwork. So the two are trying something very, very different. MCA is going to be very sublime, very subtle."
Suddenly, Cole's finding herself with rare free time. She sips coffee in Cherry Creek on a Saturday afternoon instead of troubleshooting last-minute questions at the DAM, reads books on the couch in her Seventh Avenue cottage, moves around pieces of her extensive -- and striking -- local-art collection, which includes works by everyone from Carlos Frésquez to Jenny Morgan. But you can see her getting bored, see her mind working toward the next big thing.
She's not waiting for it to come along, though. Instead, this week she's taking off for Rome on the Hobart D. Wagener Traveling Scholarship to study the modern (and controversial) buildings recently constructed in the papal city. "I have always thought that we're a transient city. Historically, we were set up on the Cherry Creek, so we were a temporary, or temporal, city," Cole says. "I think that the DAM is a definite shift in trying to change that; we're trying to build a legacy structure for this city, and that's exciting. So for my grant, I'll be studying the difference between a temporal city like Denver and a city like Rome, where the cultural memory is much more layered, and how do you do a significant cultural structure in those two parameters? I think I'm finding that both cities are trying to redefine themselves with culture."