Down for the Count

The greater Civic Center has delivered a one-two punch to the mayor's ambitions.

So how did this all go down? Here's the story. Earlier this year Holl, who teamed up with Denver's klipp architects, won the closed competition to design the courthouse portion of the Justice Center complex, which also includes a jail and a parking structure. Holl beat out the likes of Richard Meier and Lord Norman Foster, two of the most renowned architects in the world. (It makes me shudder to think how bad Denver would look had one of them been pushed out by bureaucrats.) The positioning of the three structures was predetermined by David Owen Tryba Architects, acting as the master urban-design architect. The Tryba plan also dictated certain features, such as the courthouse having a tower element that would line up with the cupola on the City and County Building and the dome of the State Capitol, both located directly east of the proposed courthouse. My own view is that this requirement seems to favor a neo-traditional approach, which is not what Holl proposed, and is not what klipp, Holl's successor on the project, will do.

In September, Holl made a presentation of his progress on the schematic design, which was at 50 percent completion. The building that emerged was elegant, sophisticated and clever. It even took green issues into account. Holl lassoed the problem of the required tower and turned it into a utility stack that was placed at the center of the site, but not at the center of the building. This tower, clad in translucent materials so that it would glow at night, wouldn't have looked traditional at all.

The building itself is conceived as two intersecting wings flanking the tower, one five stories tall and the other four. The five-story wing meanders from north to south, following the diagonal line of Tremont Place, thus connecting the building to downtown; the four-story wing runs parallel to the regular street grid. The ground floor of both wings would have been recessed, with a reverse ziggurat arrangement on certain sides so that each upper floor slightly cantilevers over the one below it. The exterior walls are made of glass, with expressionist-style sunscreens in a terra cotta red. This color would have matched up with that of the sandstone paving in the main entry plaza facing West Colfax Avenue and in a smaller one to the south. In the interior, hallways would wrap around the outside of the wings, allowing the waiting areas to have views. The courtrooms would have been lined in bleached wood paneling. The floors throughout would have been done in a crushed-stone aggregate of the terrazzo type.

Steven Holl's design for Denver's never-to-be-built 
Steven Holl's design for Denver's never-to-be-built courthouse.

The roof was to be covered with sedum -- a dry land succulent -- that would have done double duty, both insulating the building and providing the principal plant material for a rooftop garden, which would have sported unbelievable postcard views of the mountains, the Civic Center and downtown.

But Mejia didn't like it from the start, nor did his fellow travelers, Guillermo Vidal, director of the city's Department of Public Works, and Charles DesMoineaux from Jacobs Facilities. The three coordinated their responses. In a sharply worded letter to Brian Klipp back on August 17 -- weeks before the Holl presentation -- Mejia objected, among other things, to the building's "geometry" (its curves and cantilevers) and to the interior materials, confusing the terrazzo-like surfaces Holl suggested with cast concrete. It wasn't my understanding that Mejia, a freelance bureaucrat, had been hired to make aesthetic calls -- or, worse yet, to second-guess the guy who was.

Elaborate and condescending e-mails were sent to the Holl/klipp team from Vidal and DesMoineaux, requiring elaborate responses. In one sad if hilarious exchange, DesMoineaux labels Holl's work as deficient, with a reply from Holl's Chris McVoy saying it wasn't, and then DesMoineaux responding back defensively, wondering if McVoy was calling his professional abilities into question. Then there were the wildly different cost estimates, with Holl admitting that his design was about $3 million over budget, or less than 3 percent over, while the city's estimates were $30 million over, because their equations included expensive materials that Holl hadn't called for.

On September 13, a week after his presentation, Holl took his last shot and wrote a plaintive letter to Hickenlooper, asking him to intervene and replace the city's team, whom he refers to as the project managers, because he felt that they were endangering the quality of the project. (Holl apparently bought the hype about Hickenlooper being interested in architecture.)

But no, with the letter and subsequent teleconference with Hizzoner, Holl was out. And the administration circled the wagons, badmouthing Holl to the press. The worst offender was former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt -- a Denver Post columnist and the informal public-information officer for the Hickenlooper administration on this issue -- writing on October 15 that Holl's splitting town was actually good news for the city. Talk about serving chicken shit and calling it chicken salad!

The terrible situation Holl describes in his letter to the mayor surrounding the design of the Justice Center courthouse is still true. Unlike a lot of people, I think klipp is capable of doing a first-rate building, but the question is: How is klipp going to come up with something excellent when the people running the project only understand mediocrity?

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