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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."
When she returns to Denver, Cole will oversee the public-art selection for the Justice Center, the committee having already interviewed the eleven short-listed phase-one artists (including one from Colorado) last week. As the head of the group, she's helped to take this assignment in a new and innovative direction, asking artists to participate in the actual design process of the buildings. "We want artists to be equal partners with the architects in the master plan, and this is somewhat unprecedented in public art," she notes. "Usually the structures are built, you do your call for art and then you do your large-scale public sculpture, and it's not really integrated into the initial thinking. We wanted to try and change that. I think it's a huge opportunity to knit the campus together with more than just street trees. Phase two is more site-specific and will have a preference for Colorado artists, and I think that's a good thing for our city. To always reach beyond and see what the rest of the world is doing, but also support and grow our local community simultaneously."
The project she's finding most stimulating these days is the Anchor Center for Blind Children in Stapleton. "It was a really nice gift from my office," Cole says of the building, which goes into construction next month. "Brit told me, ŒMaria, we want to keep your soul active.' And it's such a cool project. The people are awesome."
It's also forced her to step outside any preconceived ideas -- something she learned directly from Libeskind. Cole realized that her interpretation of what blind and low-vision children need was not entirely correct, so she adapted and stretched as a person and an architect in order to create the best possible space for the kids. "I had a eureka moment and realized this is a study in light," she says. "This totally surprised me, because I had a preconception about blindness, about how everything needed to be tactile and sound. But because the kids are low-vision, you could see that some of them are drawn to different colors, different light sources. So the building has become this study in all sorts of lighting typologies to engage children in different ways."
The project also exemplifies another Libeskind principle: Keep it simple. Libeskind is known for his very basic palettes and materials, and Cole followed that lesson plan when creating the Anchor Center. "When you go to Stapleton, it's just this complete visual chaos -- style, materials, scale," she says. "So my first impression was that this building had to be very simple so that it would stand out." But the final concept is pure Cole: The facility is being constructed of long white bricks that will come in and out at different depths, creating an elegant monochromatic look that mimics Braille.
Definitely a gold star.