Signed, Sealed, Delivered

With the grand opening of the much-anticipated Denver Pavilions adjacent to the Adam's Mark Hotel addition that was completed last year, it's now official: The three blocks that line the south side of the 16th Street Mall between Court Place and Welton Street now make up what is surely the ugliest part of downtown Denver.

Except, perhaps, for the back of the same two projects along 15th Street.
It's too early to tell if the Denver Pavilions, developed by Bill Denton's Los Angeles-based Entertainment Development Group, will take off as a retail center--but Denver is in a boom cycle, and it seems that only with inept management will the place fail to flourish. The Adam's Mark Hotel, owned by Fred Kummer's HBE of St. Louis, has already been declared a commercial success. There are those who have welcomed both developments because they achieved the city's goal of bringing financial life back to that end of the 16th Street Mall.

But there's no reason to believe that the two projects wouldn't have been equally successful had intelligence and taste guided their designs instead of whatever it was that did.

A good deal of the responsibility for the lost civic opportunities at the monstrous Adam's Mark addition and the silly Denver Pavilions must be assigned to Susan Powers, former director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. The two ghastly projects are Powers's greatest and most high-profile achievements, since they're the largest commercial projects erected downtown in the 1990s, which tells its own story about the neighborhood's decline as a business center.

DURA made substantial contributions of public money to both projects, with $35 million going to the Adam's Mark and $24 million to the Pavilions. (The total cost of the Adam's Mark Hotel redo was $135 million, while the Denver Pavilions project cost $107 million.)

In the case of the dreadful Adam's Mark, DURA violated its own guidelines by funding a proposal that endangered a "landmark, or a potential landmark." Formerly occupying the block on which the Adam's Mark addition now sits was a portion of the 1950s Zeckendorf Plaza, an early and significant multi-building complex designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. The Zeckendorf Plaza's single still-standing Pei element, the tower (which is now a part of the Adam's Mark Hotel), has itself been negatively affected by insensitive remodeling at the tower's main entrance, and its mechanical penthouse, so perfect in its original proportions, is now being crudely altered.

The story is somewhat different in the case of the Pavilions. The historic buildings that once stood where the Pavilions have been erected, including the 1920s Denver Theater, by William Norman Bowman, and the 1960s World Savings, by Alan Gass, were long ago torn down, mostly for the never-built Centerstone shopping-mall project of the 1980s. By the time ground was broken for the Pavilions last year, contractors Hensel Phelps and J.A. Walker were handed a level, vacant site that had served as a parking lot and, briefly, as the setting for a downtown flea market.

In the early '90s, the site on which the Denver Pavilions now sits was correctly perceived as a blight on the 16th Street Mall. Downtown workers launched a failed petition drive to have the two square blocks converted into city parkland, but developers were already eyeing the area, and the proposed park never stood a chance.

In 1995, while developers for the awful Adam's Mark Hotel and the trite Denver Pavilions were angling for DURA money, Powers, in a presentation to Denver's City Club on April 25, wondered aloud why no one seemed to object to DURA's funding the Denver Pavilions while so many had opposed the Adam's Mark deal. Was she serious? Gosh, let's see: On one site there was a nationally significant complex designed by a world-renowned architect; on the other was vacant land. But even though there were no historic buildings threatened, as there were at Zeckendorf, the public interest was still subverted when it came to the Pavilions, since Powers allowed public money earmarked for public art to be diverted to pay for part of the shopping mall's mammoth sign.

Like the city of Denver and the state of Colorado, DURA has a "one percent for art" program. But since DURA money is thrown at private projects instead of public ones, there are special problems with the agency's funding of art. For example, left to their own devices, won't craven and opportunistic developers try to use the public money meant for public art to pay for other things, like signs? In an attempt to prevent such potential abuses, paying for signs or other forms of advertising is proscribed in the DURA guidelines.

But as administered by Powers, DURA presided over the funding of the Denver Pavilions sign and even got the city planning office on board, as evidenced by a July 23 letter to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News that was penned by Director of Urban Design Tyler Gibbs, which sidestepped the issue of whether the sign was public art by instead defending it on the grounds that it would be difficult to see. "One will have to make a real effort to view the Denver Pavilions sign," Gibbs wrote. On this one point, at least, he is right. To see the sign, viewers must enter the Denver Pavilions, which means that not only is it not art, but it's not all that public, either.

In the case of the Adam's Mark fiasco, Denver's Office of Planning and Community Development should have stepped in to stop the destruction of historic buildings--but it didn't. Conversely, the agency didn't need to involve itself in the controversy over the sign at the Denver Pavilions--but it did, defending Power's wrongheaded decision to allow the sign to qualify as art for funding purposes. And that's no surprise, since Gibbs's boss is planning director Jennifer Moulton. At a city council salute when she stepped down as DURA's director this past summer, Powers said she's walked "hand in hand" with Moulton--in this and other recent affronts to the common good.

Before examining the "architecture" of the Denver Pavilions, let's look at the appalling Adam's Mark Hotel, which was designed by an in-house architectural team from Kummer's HBE. The Adam's Mark addition, which is technically neo-traditional in style, reveals in its awkward proportions an unintentional lesson on the architectural notion of scale, which is the visually informed and sensitive relationship of volumes.

In the original Zeckendorf Plaza, a formal rhythm was created from the complex's distinct elements, which were arranged in perfect four-part harmony. At ground level was the plaza, with its recessed ice rink; up a couple of stories was the roof of the hyperbolic paraboloid; at double that height was the top of the department-store box; and finally, the twenty-plus stories of the tower.

Now the plaza has been replaced with a driveway, the paraboloid with a chunky granite-and-glass box that drunkenly veers this way and that, and the former department store reclad in cheesy black glass with gold-toned aluminum trim. And just for bad measure, some extra stories have been tacked on so that it's not in accordance with the Pei hotel--a building with which it is connected but no longer visually integrated.

The Adam's Mark Hotel is as badly designed as it is possible to imagine, and so is its public-art component. To satisfy DURA's art-money set-aside, Kummer personally selected an untitled group of five ballerinas by St. Louis sculptor Ruth Keller Schweiss. The piece has its limitations--it's ineptly done and ugly--but at least it fulfills a common-sense idea of what public art should be: It's a large outdoor sculptural group placed close to the street. And that's more than can be said for that publicly funded sign next door at the Denver Pavilions.

Looking at the trendy details--and its even trendier tenants--some may be fooled into thinking that the Denver Pavilions has a more sophisticated design than the nearby Adam's Mark. But it doesn't.

The Pavilions' four ersatz modern buildings were designed by ELS, a Berkeley, California-based architectural firm known for its prowess in shopping-center planning. The sunny California origins of the project's designers (and of its developer, Denton) are easy to see in the Pavilions' pedestrian plan, which features a lot of open-air or minimally covered staircases that should prove to be a maintenance nightmare now that the snow has started to fall.

The Pavilions runs for two blocks along the 16th Street Mall. Taken as a group, the project's separate elements neither gel as a single concept nor read as a row of separate buildings. Instead, they're a confusing array of unrelated forms, covered in stucco and painted in a jarring color scheme of red, pink and putty. The tinted stucco forms have been haphazardly jammed together --big, theatrical shapes crash into one another for no good aesthetic or functional reason. The gigantic curving wall that houses the United Artists Theaters is placed on top of a multi-story box on the Tremont Place side and looks as though it's ready to fall into the street. There's a baffling array of sights--here a little Viennese Secession-style window, a moderne wall over there, '50s trim above and some Chicago commercial-style massing below. Obviously, the designers had no clear architectural point of view. Some of the details are nice by themselves, but they've been put together so badly that the whole of the Denver Pavilions is much less than the sum of its parts.

With its complicated formal relationships and its polychromy, the Pavilions bears a superficial relationship to two of the city's finest works of architecture, the 1985 Tabor Center complex by Kohn, Pederson, Fox and Michael Graves's 1995 Central Library addition at the Civic Center. But this comparison actually reveals exactly what it is that makes KPF and Graves among the most significant architectural firms in the country: Both are able to cogently assemble disparate parts into a unified whole, something the graceless designers of the Denver Pavilions were clearly incapable of doing.

In fact, there is only one thing that unifies the visual cacophony of the Denver Pavilions--that mammoth sign with the forty-foot-tall letters.

The cost of the sign was roughly $800,000, with nearly a third of that--$240,000--coming from the public-art money, and most of the rest, another $400,000, provided by DURA. (To put the $240,000 of public funding for public art in context, Donald Lipski's "Yearling," recently erected on the lawn of the Central Library, cost $175,000.)

The very expensive sign was conjured up by the Pavilions designers, ELS. It's obvious that the sign is a key element of their design for the project and that it would have been erected regardless of whether the money came from what was supposed to be the art budget. And that's exactly why DURA guidelines identified signage as ineligible for that portion of grants set aside for public art. Developers don't have to be forced to erect signs; they will do it in any case. But without prodding, they won't include public art in their projects. And this is exactly what happened at the Denver Pavilions.

Apparently, Denton and the team from ELS knew they were pulling a fast one, because they call it an "installation" rather than a sign. In this way, they add insult to injury, getting public funding meant for art, using it to pay for a sign and then ridiculing contemporary art by pretending it's an example of conceptualism. This idea might have flown had the ELS sign simply read "Denver"--it could then arguably be a work of art, even if the motivation for its creation was to get free money. But once the word "Pavilions" is tacked on, it leaves these arguments behind, because the sign is simply advertising.

When Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza filled the block where the Adam's Mark Hotel addition now stands, it was a place to see. Now it isn't. Kummer could have been forced to save it and reuse it had Powers only had the vision--because she sure had the power. Though there is little need to visit the Adam's Mark Hotel, the Denver Pavilions does have its distinct attractions. So when you find yourself lingering over the smoked-duck pizza at the Wolfgang Puck Cafe or picking up that new Puff Daddy CD at the Virgin Megastore, pause and consider that sign. Had DURA's Powers made Denton play by the rules, the sign would still be there, but there would also be a quarter of a million dollars' worth of public art.

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