Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built 
    Museum of Contemporary Art.
Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built Museum of Contemporary Art.

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On the morning of Monday, May 1, throngs of Mexican-Americans, most of them young, marched through downtown Denver -- and cities across the country -- in support of the rights of undocumented immigrants. The story of these Mexican exiles is well known, with many of them toiling in the unforgiving Colorado sun all day long, working in the construction trades or in landscape maintenance.

I mention this event because it set up an unintentional irony related to another gathering held later that same day: the groundbreaking for the Museum of Contemporary Art's new building, to be constructed at the corner of 15th and Delgany streets. In that case, the mostly white and mostly over-fifty crowd was not forced to labor in the broiling sun but to sit in it, and during the series of short presentations by various dignitaries, many people in the audience visibly wilted.

The story begins a decade ago, when the MCA, then known as MoCA/D, debuted in luxuriously appointed rented space at 1999 Broadway. From the start, the institution founded by Sue Cannon was ambitious. That first show, a look at works in local private collections, included pieces by major international art stars and by some of the top artists working in the area.


Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art

After a few shows on Broadway, the MCA moved to its present location, a two-story former fish market in Sakura Square, at the corner of 19th and Larimer streets. In January 2001, Cydney Payton came on as executive director and immediately started scouting around for a building to purchase, a dream ever since the museum was housed on Broadway. But by that time, bargain buildings downtown were a lot harder to find, so she, along with members of the board of trustees, came up with the idea of constructing a brand-new, ground-up building. In 2004, a competition with lots of public input was held. Six cutting-edge architects and firms vied for the job, and a selection committee that even included students from the P.S.1 charter school ultimately chose African-born, London-based architect David Adjaye, a definite up-and-comer in the world of international architecture.

Karl Kister, chairman of the MCA's board, served as master of ceremonies at the groundbreaking, introducing the dignitaries in attendance, including several politicians who spoke to the crowd. First up were Diana DeGette, congresswoman from Colorado's First Congressional District, which is essentially the City of Denver, and Mark Udall, from the Second Congressional District, which includes Boulder. The two shared the podium, and DeGette spoke about her love of contemporary art and the importance of art education in the public schools, while Udall zeroed in on the fact that the building was going to be energy-efficient and would, when completed, qualify for LEED certification, which stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design." This will make it a national model for a cultural facility. (It was Kister who had insisted that the new building be an example of sustainable design.) Neither DeGette nor Udall, however, made any promises of helping to come up with substantial federal financial support for the MCA, which still needs $6 million to pay for the new building and the programs that will be presented in it.

Next came Denver councilwoman Judy Montero, in whose district the MCA site is located. Montero mostly keyed in on the booming Platte Valley, and, like DeGette and Udall, she didn't make any promises of cash. Near the end of her brief remarks, she referred to the museum as "the MCI," and it crossed my mind that had it been MCI putting up a new building and not the MCA, the city would somehow find some dough.

But if DeGette, Udall and Montero didn't mention money, Mayor John Hickenlooper addressed it head-on when he took the dais. He pointed out that although "no public money" was involved in the project, there is sure to be "tremendous public benefit," and noted that the construction of the museum will be "a milestone in the city's cultural renaissance." Which brings up an obvious question: Why can't some public money be found to help the MCA? Right now, the city is preparing to throw a big aid package at the Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater project. In that case, a former quasi-public asset, a community theater, is being converted into a for-profit shopping center. If big money can be put up to help with this project, why can't the city come up with some scratch for the MCA? The answer, of course, is that it could if it wanted to.

And I think the mayor should be the one to figure out how to do it, because he's got a karmic debt vis-à-vis the MCA. Right in the middle of the MCA's quest for a new building, Hickenlooper pulled the Clyfford Still Museum out of his hat, and that has made things tougher for the MCA. The city is providing the Still with lots of in-kind support, such as office space in the Wellington Webb Building and administrative help from the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, whereas the MCA has to sink or swim, paying its own way to do so. But more important, the Still has been raising money in town, and that gives the MCA even more competition than it already had in the small world of big donors in Denver.

Payton took the stage next, and her introduction was greeted with the first enthusiastic round of applause heard that day. "Wow," said Payton, "what a big moment." Then she added, "It's hot, in more ways than one," referring both to the blazing sun (she'd thought to bring a parasol) and to the exciting prospect of a sleek new home for the MCA.

She laid out three original goals for the building: first, that its "architecture supports rather than defines the museum's programming"; second, that "the project be economical"; and finally, that it would "qualify for LEED certification." According to Payton, the building designed by Adjaye will handily meet these three mandates.

The honor of introducing Adjaye fell to Ian Ruskey, one of the P.S. 1 students who had participated in the architect-selection process. Ruskey was very poised and well-spoken. He said that he and his fellow students had picked Adjaye because they really liked the way he talked, mentioning not only his ideas about architecture, but his "neat accent," too.

That neat accent was on display immediately after Ruskey concluded, with Adjaye noting in his upper-class British manner that the MCA is his first civic commission in the United States. "I started in art, and to have my first building in America be an art museum is incredible," Adjaye said. When I spoke with him later, he told me that one of the most remarkable things about the project was how easily it had come together compared with other projects he's done elsewhere. "It's been unbelievable," he told me. He also saluted the work of Brit Probst and Maria Cole, both of the Davis Partnership, who are the local architects helping to carry out his vision.

The building Adjaye has conceived is a gorgeous, exquisitely proportioned box that will be nestled among the almost-completed Art House Townhomes complex and an already fully occupied mid-rise loft building, Monarch Mills. Aside from the townhome that's been designed by Adjaye for Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss, the husband and wife who donated the land on which the MCA will rise, the Art House and Monarch Mills projects were designed by Colorado architects from the firm of Studio Completiva. When the museum is finished, this group of neo-modernist buildings will constitute one of the most chic-looking and best-designed neighborhoods in the whole city.

The Adjaye building will be three stories aboveground, with a rooftop garden on the top level and a basement below. Since the rooftop garden is enclosed behind the exterior walls, future expansion of the building could happen there, but otherwise there's no room to grow on the very tight lot.

The building will be clad in translucent glass panels so that at night it will glow like a lantern. The walls will be punctuated by thin vertical members applied to the exterior of all three levels. Interestingly, these verticals do not line up with one another, with each floor having its own arrangement. Adjaye has said on previous occasions that these vertical stripes were inspired by African motifs, but they also have something to do with modernist formalism.

The first floor will be recessed in places, with the main entrance hidden from the exterior. An opening at the northeast corner encloses a ramp that wraps around to the southwest side of the building, where visitors will enter. There will be five interior spaces for art displays, each of which will be dedicated to showcasing different kinds of art and will allow the MCA to present multiple features simultaneously. On the first floor, there will be a good-sized photography gallery and a smaller space for new media. Up the grand staircase will be the biggest of the five exhibition rooms, the large-works gallery, along with another capacious room, the works-on-paper gallery, and a smaller space called the projects gallery. All of these offer future naming opportunities for donors. In addition, there will be a bookstore and educational facilities, including what's been dubbed the "Idea Space," along with rooms for meetings and lectures, and, of course, a suite of administrative offices.

Construction on the new MCA is to begin within a couple of months, and completion is expected in spring 2007, by which time the initial excitement over the fall opening of Daniel Libeskind's Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum will surely have died down enough to allow the MCA to have its day.

MCA founder Sue Cannon, now trustee emeritus, did not address the crowd on the day of the groundbreaking, which was disappointing, but she did contribute a written statement. For Cannon, and for most of the rest of us, the MCA is a place where people will be able to "keep abreast of the art world" and where "local artists" will be helped to "survive and proliferate." To me, this last part is extremely important, because the DAM already does a good job of keeping tabs on the international scene, meaning it's the local scene that needs the MCA's support. By plugging into Denver's vibrant art world, not only will artists benefit, but so, too, will the MCA. Because without the support of the people around here, the new museum will be disconnected from its core constituency and, ultimately, will not flourish.


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