Civic Circus

I can't imagine what world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind was thinking when he took on the job of brainstorming about the Civic Center right before his new Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum is set to open. After all, the Civic Center is beloved by many, and messing with it has implicit pitfalls -- as Libeskind will soon find out.

Didn't Libeskind learn anything when his plans for the World Trade Center site in New York melted down? Though his ideas for the Civic Center won't be made public until late this month, a number have leaked out, like a 300-foot-plus tower plunked down in the middle of the park (now said to be off the table) and a reflecting pool to run from the Greek Theater to the Voorhies Memorial. The city can't even keep its existing water features going, let alone maintain a concrete lake. But, hey, it sounds good on paper.

Until he took on the Civic Center job, Libeskind enjoyed a lot of goodwill around here. But then, when people started to become aware of what he was up to, it was as though a Pandora's box was opened. Suddenly people had permission to hate Libeskind and thus bash his new Hamilton.

Libeskind was contracted by a group called the Civic Center Conservancy, and the blame for all the trouble lies at their feet. It's hardly an august group, being made up of rich donors, such as president Elaine Asarch, who is married to a prominent physician; developers, including Chris Frampton from East-West Partners, the corporation redeveloping much of the Central Platte Valley; political hacks like Marcus Pachner, a failed city council candidate; and uninspired bureaucrats, most notably James Mejia, who set a new low standard when he was head of the parks department during Wellington Webb's administration, a standard that his successor, Kim Bailey, has maintained (see Artbeat, page 47). You really know the Civic Center is in trouble when the most credible member of the CCC is a gadfly like Dennis Humphries. Though Humphries is half of the respected firm of Humphries Poli Architects, it's his partner, Joe Poli, who does nearly all of the designing; Humphries fills up most of his time with volunteer positions, such as the one he holds on the Civic Center Conservancy.

Why couldn't a more credible Civic Center Conservancy have been assembled? Why wasn't the first call to Don and Carolyn Etter -- you know, Mr. and Mrs. Denver Parks? Yes, the Etters were eventually asked to join the group, but only after the shit hit the fan -- not when the conservancy started its deliberations. As could be expected, the Etters passed up the honor of joining at this late date. And why, I must ask, was there room on the conservancy for representatives of construction companies and entertainment outfits, but not preservationists? Gee, it's not like the Civic Center is historic or anything.

The conservancy has already put some of the ideas they've come up with into practice, notably a film series and a farmers' market. It's no surprise to me that neither has taken off, and you do have to wonder about a group that looks at the Civic Center and sees it as either a drive-in or a parking lot.

It's confounding to me why the Civic Center needs to be re-thought up in the first place. You don't fix something when it isn't broken. Are these people on the conservancy unfamiliar with Denver? If they want an over-the-top creation by Libeskind, why not put it in the big chain of empty parks in the Platte Valley? Let Libeskind go hog-wild, with 300-foot towers and reflecting pools placed every few feet. But not at our marvelous Civic Center, which has an established character and is one of the finest architectural and landscape equities in the entire state -- homeless guys and all.

Nothing better demonstrates how off-track things have gotten than Mayor John Hickenlooper's okaying the appointment of Ed Robran to the Justice Center's Project Evaluation Panel for public art. Though a longtime resident of the area, Robran has had no profile whatsoever in the local art world. I contacted the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs to ask about him, and it took a week to get an answer, because no one at the agency knew Robran. I do know him, and his very presence on the panel is a slap in the face to the entire art community. I also know how this card-carrying philistine finagled his way into the process.

Robran is a retired educator with no known credentials, credibility or qualifications in art or art education. Think about that for a minute: In a city with literally thousands of people with advanced degrees in art or art history, Hickenlooper appoints someone who is completely innocent of the topic to Denver's most important public-art process of the early 21st century. Robran's entree into the city's art scene was lubricated by his friendship with Curt Freed's wife. The Freeds, relatives of Clyfford Still, have been instrumental in getting the Clyfford Still Museum to Denver. Plus, Robran is a representative of the Golden Triangle Museum District -- as though that group didn't have enough credibility issues already.  

I had the distinct displeasure of meeting Robran in the early 1990s, during the struggle to save Burnham Hoyt's sleek Boettcher School, which stood on Downing Street between 18th and 19th avenues. Denver Public Schools was planning to sell the facility to The Children's Hospital, which intended to demolish it. The school, built between 1938 and 1940, was a world-class masterpiece, all ribbon windows and radial curves, with lots of green aggregate, aluminum detailing and cast-in-place concrete. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, owing to its architectural and historic significance. Originally meant as a facility to educate handicapped children, it was one of the first structures in the world built to be wheelchair-accessible.

Robran emerged as an enemy of the building, casting his lot with the hospital's representative, Julia Fitz-Randolph. The two hit it off personally because both -- and I'm not making this up -- collected teddy bears.

At a meeting held to determine the Boettcher's eligibility for inclusion on the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission's list, Robran was the only person present who questioned the quality of the Hoyt. Not even Fitz-Randolph insulted it. But Robran arrogantly addressed the group, saying that if the commission voted to save the school, "I wonder what's next? Jerry's Nuthouse?" The commission, then a respected group, voted unanimously to landmark Boettcher despite Robran's insults. After the meeting, Rodd Wheaton, then-regional director of cultural resources for the National Park Service, confronted Robran and, summing up what we all felt, roared, "How dare you!"

This anecdote illustrates Robran's lack of fitness when it comes to aesthetic issues. If he had any decency, he'd resign from the Justice Center panel. But as I said, I know the guy, and I know there's not a decent hair on his head.

Speaking of the Clyfford Still Museum, the five semi-finalists selected to compete for the commission to design the new building have been announced. The 30,000-square-foot structure, to be located immediately west of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, will house the more than 2,200 Stills the city is acquiring from the artist's estate.

I was very impressed by the five architects who made the cut -- impressed with how unimpressive they are. According to the press release, each has demonstrated "their ability to deliver a building that is architecturally significant on an international scale." This will be quite a trick, as none of them has done that so far.

When I came to the first name on the list, my heart stopped: Allied Works Architecture, which is based in Portland, Oregon, and headed up by the infamous Brad Cloepfil. I say "infamous" because Cloepfil is responsible for the destruction of 2 Columbus Circle, the former Huntington Hartford Museum in New York City. The building is being stripped to its structure and covered with a new shell designed by Cloepfil. A 1960s high-rise, often seen in the background of movies set in Manhattan, the confection was designed by Edward Durrell Stone, a giant of twentieth-century architecture. The building, with its arches and geometric tracery in the form of screens, clearly anticipated the post-modernism of subsequent decades. That's especially interesting when you consider that Stone started out as a doctrinaire functionalist in the 1930s and was of the form-follows-function stripe. By the time he did 2 Columbus Circle in the mid-1960s, though, he'd embraced decoration -- i.e., to be non-functional. If AWA is chosen, I sure will be disappointed to see a vandal like Cloepfil working here in Denver.

None of the other semi-finalists for the Clyfford Still Museum elicited the same visceral repulsion as Cloepfil, but none of them dazzles me, either. There's New York's Diller Scofidio + Renfro, clearly the most respected firm on the short list; David Chipperfield Architects from London; Ohlhausen DuBois Architects, another New York firm; and Tokyo's SANAA, a collaborative office formed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. None of them are to architecture what Still was to painting, so I miss the point of any of them being chosen for the short list. Maybe it was hard to get big names to apply for such a minor commission, since the building is projected to cost a paltry $10 million to $15 million.  

Dean Sobel, the director of the Clyfford Still Museum, has said that these firms are comparable in their reputations to where Daniel Libeskind was when he was chosen to do the DAM's Hamilton. Well, only if you forget that Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin was being pictured in just about every magazine in the world when he got the DAM job. Would it have killed the Clyfford Still Museum Architect Selection Committee to have put a Denver architect on the list of semi-finalists? After all, it is a city commission, and if the locals can't get high-status projects here, where should they seek them out?

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