Construction workers are finishing up one of the first high-rises to be built downtown in about twenty years. It's the new Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel, at 14th and California streets. For a decade now, the severe under-performance of the Colorado Convention Center has been laid at the feet of the hotel industry, with the explanation that no hotel was large enough to house the attendees of big conventions. That situation will change next month when the Hyatt opens, adding 1,100 guest rooms. The spiffy skyscraper is not one of the largest or the tallest buildings downtown, but it is already one of the most distinctive.
Before I praise the not-yet-completed structure, it makes sense to briefly survey the sordid history of the whole convention-center hotel issue. First and foremost, the pronounced lack of a sufficiently large hotel was the rationale that doomed the 1950s hyperbolic paraboloid, plaza and retail block of I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza. Zeckendorf Plaza was at Court Place and the 16th Street Mall before it was lost to demolition and insensitive changes in 1996. According to Fred Kummer, an out-of-town developer, these distinguished pieces of the city's architectural heritage had to go to make room for his Adam's Mark Hotel, which would lodge conventioneers -- who, ironically, didn't show up anyway. Today only the old hotel tower at Zeckendorf Plaza survives from the original Pei complex.
The loss of Pei's creations has to be one of the greatest civic failures carried out during the Wellington Webb administration. It constantly crosses my mind how much its destruction architecturally diminished our city. It's a pity that the place no longer exists now that outstanding examples of contemporary architecture are being built within blocks of where the plaza was.
Building Outside the Box
Through October 2006, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000
But the vandalism to Zeckendorf Plaza isn't the only casualty in the pursuit of a large hotel: Temple Buell's Denver Post Building, a 1940s art moderne confection, was also demolished to provide the site for the new Hyatt.
Despite the building's ignoble beginning -- and putting aside the fact that the city built the hotel at public expense because there were no takers to do so in the private sector -- the new Hyatt is great-looking and makes an extremely nice addition to the city's skyline. Designed by the klipp firm, the hotel was conceived as a cluster of attenuated, vertically oriented rectangles that rise 37 stories. The proportions are perfect, giving the building a sleek profile. It's virtually drenched in neo-modernist ornamental details, including the dramatic corner windows, collectively dubbed "the glass canyon," facing the CCC.
Laudably, and surely in part because the project was city-funded, the Hyatt will be festooned with more than $2 million worth of custom-designed art pieces. Some of these works are being paid for through the city's "One Percent for Art" program, which requires 1 percent of hard costs on all city-funded projects to be set aside for public art, while others were commissioned by the Hyatt Corporation. Though some internationally known artists were selected, most of the pieces are to be done by Colorado artists, which I think is great.
The art, of course, is not yet in place, but it will be by the time of the projected opening, complementing the recent onslaught of new public-art pieces recently unveiled downtown. The current art craze in that area started with the CCC's program and stars two of the city's best outdoor artworks: "I See What You Mean," Lawrence Argent's big blue bear, which has fast become a symbol of Denver, and Bernar Venet's "Indeterminate Line."
Over the years, I've raised some considerable doubts about the need for the convention center and its hotel, but the art programs for both have been top-drawer. I can't wait to see the many pieces at the Hyatt when it's finished and open. Plus, unlike the CCC, which merely looks good thanks to the art and not the design, the Hyatt appears to be one of the best works of architecture in the whole city.
Speaking of the best works of architecture in the city, immediately going to the head of the list is the Denver Art Museum's still-under-construction Hamilton Building, which is set to open in fall 2006. Designed by international architecture star Daniel Libeskind, the remarkable structure is taking shape at the intersection of West 13th Avenue and Acoma Plaza, south of the museum's Gio Ponti-designed masterpiece.
Many readers will have followed the story of Daniel Libeskind's work at the World Trade Center site in New York, where his concept for the Freedom Tower was neutered by market considerations. Instead of a cluster of pointed forms, the tallest of which was to be a symbolic 1,776 feet tall, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials and other government types turned Libeskind's flight of fancy into a conventional high-rise with a spike on top. Because Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director, is a visionary and not a bureaucrat, he allowed Libeskind to give Denver the best building he could. As a result, we're getting a masterpiece and the Big Apple isn't.
At this point, I'm sure a lot of people are howling because they don't like the Hamilton, let alone consider it a masterpiece. The chief criticism I've heard is that the outrageous shape of the building makes it wasteful and violates the "form follows function" dictum of classic modernism. Well, love modernism as I do, it's long been eclipsed by post-modernism, which itself was checkmated by deconstructionism and neo-modernism, with the Hamilton having a little of both of those post-post-modern manners. That hardly makes Libeskind's design open to snipes from those armed only with historical ideas. Not only that, but I think you could argue that the form of this building does follow its function, because one of its functions is to call attention to itself -- and it has done that in spades.
The thing that really bugs me about those who knock the Hamilton is the context of the city in which we all actually live. Within a few blocks of the incredible DAM structure are three high-rise residential buildings that individually and collectively lower the city's architectural average. I'm talking about the Belvedere, the Prado and the Beauvallon. Compared to these carbuncles, the Hamilton is the Parthenon. There -- I rest my case.
There's only one thing I don't like about the new Hamilton: The west elevation is blocked by a row of mediocre low-rise buildings. There was no money to acquire this row of buildings facing Bannock Street because Mayor Webb cut the building's budget to the bone while lavishing hundreds of millions on sports arenas and a convention center. I'll never forget Webb's cutting the DAM request from $63.5 million to $62.5 million, as if the difference between the two sums would have mattered in the bond election held in 1999. No, Webb had to show the DAM who was boss. He appointed his wife, Wilma, to the museum's architect-selection committee, and when the Hamilton opens, the couple will surely not only be sharing the glory, but taking as much credit as possible.
There's a lot going on outside the DAM in addition to the outlandish Hamilton taking shape. There's the pedestrian bridge crossing above West 13th Avenue, and the pop-top going up on the Bach wing next to the Ponti building. Inside the Ponti, however, it's a different story. (While we're on the subject of the Ponti, it's now officially known as the North Building. Is that a transparent move on the part of the museum's administration or what? Trust me, it won't be called the North Building for long with the naming rights now clearly up for grabs.) Because of the ongoing construction, the second floor of the Ponti has been closed and essentially emptied of artifacts. The seventh floor, devoted to art of the American West, has also been closed. Through the holidays, the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floors will remain open until a yet-to-be-announced date this coming spring, when those floors will close so that the art can be shifted around. That will leave only C-level and the main floor remaining open until work is finished.
During the downtime and right up to the opening of the Hamilton next fall, there will be one show on the main floor called Building Outside the Box: Creating the New Denver Art Museum, also known by its cutesy nickname of B.O.B. The smallish exhibit is on display on the first floor of the Ponti. If the Hamilton building itself is exciting, its explication and the apologia that's put forward in this show are decidedly not.
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I'm a big fan of architecture, so this show should have been the kind of thing I'd really go for -- but it wasn't. In fact, not only is this not an art show at all, but it's not much of an architecture show, either. It's more like what you'd expect to find in an airport or a shopping mall: all flat-screen TVs and wall texts.
It looks as though this dog was organized by a committee coming out of the marketing or education departments, and not by a curator with some expertise in the field. Before I saw the show, I had great expectations for it, since Craig Miller, the head of the DAM's architecture, design and graphics department, does such a good job. I had thought he'd be the one put in charge, but that's clearly not what happened. The real shame is that by putting on this dumbed-down feature, it's very unlikely that a proper show will be done in the future.
I have to wonder what the powers-that-be at the DAM were thinking when they came up with this thing. If people are interested enough in the Hamilton that they want to delve into the details of its coming together, wouldn't they also be smart enough to take in a well-thought-out exhibit? Conversely, wouldn't they also have little patience for a featherweight offering like B.O.B. ? I know I did.