I've never been a big fan of the City & County of Denver when it comes to architectural and artistic decisions. They've repeatedly dropped the ball on everything from I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was demolished in 1996, to the proposed destruction of Civic Center Park's beauty in 2006, to running starchitects like Steven Holl and Santiago Calatrava out of town. And now those big thinkers are at it again with a plan to raze the Boettcher Concert Hall -- which is part of the Denver Performing Arts Complex -- and replace it with an outdoor amphitheater. News about the plan broke in July, when Colorado Symphony Orchestra chief executive officer Jerry Kern revealed a series of e-mails between himself and Kent Rice, director of the city's Arts & Venues Department, who said that demolition was the leading plan. (See our related story on the CSO's Jerry Kern.)
Hopefully, this idiotic scheme is now dead in the water. But this is Denver, so you never know. With that in mind, here are five reasons why destroying Boettcher is one of the city's most wrongheaded ideas in recent memory.
1. An amphitheater wouldn't work in that location I'm sure there's a lot of money to be made by the companies who would take down Boettcher and its external staircase and move the Jonathan Borofsky "Dancers" sculptures -- and there's plenty more money to be made by the design and construction outfits who would build the new amphitheater. And I know in my heart that these are the interests behind this otherwise ludicrous idea.
What I don't understand is how an amphitheater on that site could possibly work as a concert venue. I'm not talking about the winter months; Red Rocks is world-famous and has survived many winters. No, I'm talking about the traffic noise on Speer Boulevard, which would drown out everything save for a performance by a metal band. A constant din is the normal condition there, and it turns into a roar if there's a game at Mile High Stadium or the Pepsi Center -- and there often is.
I sometimes wonder how the city officials can come up with this stuff, but what's even more confounding is that they can say it out loud while keeping straight faces.
2. The schedule could be refreshed and updated One of the things that has put the bull's-eye on Boettcher is the dwindling audience for classical music, and classical music is the main course in the concert hall because the Colorado Symphony is the primary tenant.
This seems to me to be a management issue that can be solved with much less effort than it would take to demolish the building and replace it with a gargantuan folly. Does the schedule at Boettcher need to be diversified? Diversify it. Add other acoustic musical acts like jazz groups or folk musicians if that's what's needed. This has already happened to a limited extent, but if it needs to happen more often, then do it more often. The building has nothing to do with this issue.
Having observed the process of sentencing a building to death, I've noticed that it's important that the subject look a little shabby to convince the gullible that the best idea is to trash it. This has gone on at Boettcher for years, which can convey a threadbare, run-down quality in places. But that problem could be solved for a few million dollars to pay for a thorough exterior and interior cleaning and a light refurbishment -- a fraction of the tens of millions that it would take to realize the ridiculous plan to destroy Boettcher and build a nonsensical amphitheater.
3. Times change, as do trends Roughly twenty years ago, the late Barry Fey, a legendary Denver music promoter, got behind the idea of tearing out all the benches at Red Rocks Amphitheatre and rebuilding them so that the beloved venue would have twice the seating capacity that it was intended to have. The fact that this would inalterably change the nearly perfect proportions of the terraced bowl created by Burnham Hoyt -- or that it would erase all the hard efforts by those thousands of worthy Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built it -- was beside the point. It was about making more money.
As the contentious discussions continued over several years, Fey (who, incidentally, is credited with helping to save Denver's symphony back in 1989) realized that the age of the mega-concert was over and changed his mind about the expansion, a concept that was his in the first place.
The point, in relation to Boettcher, is that just because the audience for the concert hall is smaller than it used to be, that doesn't mean it will always be that way. And with some inspired bookings -- or some kind of pop-star status being afforded to a good-looking conductor, sparking a classical-music craze -- it might just wind up being too small.
4. It is an architectural gem Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, the partnership of Hugh Hardy, Malcolm Holzman and Norman Pfeiffer, brought an entire vocabulary of visual and conceptual cues to Boettcher that make the building a cutting-edge design for its time. There's the two-tone brick work with broad stripes wrapping around the exterior; those sine-wave bump-outs that cantilever out on the side; the greenhouse lobby with its sawtooth roof; and the exposed mechanical systems at the ceiling, à la the Pompidou Centre in Paris. And there is the theater-in-the-round concept which, although it has its problems, is undeniably beautiful, and the entire space is luxuriously appointed.
All of these facts undermine the lie of a talking point that's being promoted by those who would tear down the building: that Boettcher was built on the cheap. It wasn't.
There's plenty of visual interest in the round theater, especially the cantilevered balconies, which wrap around the stage. They have figured sculptural faces holding in blocks of handsome seats arrayed in partial arcs. And how about those seats? Done in upholstered bent plywood, they are out-of-this-world gorgeous, and they would cost thousands of dollars apiece were they to be purchased today. Which, in our value-engineered environment, they wouldn't be.
5. The Boettcher Concert Hall provides a snapshot of the city's dreams Around 1970, Denver was a sleepy, mid-sized city. Then three public projects were conjured up that changed the game for architecture around here. First came the 1971 Denver Art Museum by Gio Ponti. That was followed by the establishment of the Auraria Campus, anchored by a Helmut Jahn library completed in 1976. And finally, there was the Denver Performing Arts Complex, master-planned by Kevin Roche with help from the hotshot New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer that had been tapped to whip up Boettcher, which debuted in 1978. The DPAC -- like the museum and the library -- gained international renown for the quality of its architecture and for the state-of-the-art character of its facilities.
These public projects exemplify the unbound optimism and oversized ambitions of Denver in the 1970s, and they set the tone and standard for what was to come later in the 1980s, making this era the city's most significant period for architecture ever.
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Remember when the people who ran Denver thought like this? Me, neither.