The new History Colorado Center is an architectural triumph

The new History Colorado Center, at the corner of 12th Avenue and Broadway, is clearly the most accomplished, developed and significant design ever done by Tryba Architects. In fact, the museum, which opens to the public on April 28, crowns David Tryba, the head of the firm, as among the most artistically distinguished Denver architects ever.

Consummately intelligent and extensively thought out, the HCC is near the top of the design heap when compared to other buildings in the greater Civic Center area, many of which are among the most important structures in the region. But it also stands out as one of the best of a host of new cultural amenities that have been built over the last decade in Denver, Aspen, Colorado Springs and elsewhere.

The HCC could almost be seen as having the lingering DNA from the brilliant work Tryba did for the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center — one of the most sensitive additions to a historic landmark I've ever seen. For that project, Tryba channeled the sensibilities of the building's original architect, John Gaw Meem, by assembling a vocabulary of sumptuous materials used in minimalist ways.

At the History Colorado Center, Tryba has really run with this idea, and there is something gorgeous everywhere you look. The building has three elevations; the fourth side abuts the ING Building. The exterior is substantially covered in panels of Indiana limestone, with expressed mortar joints adding visual interest to the walls. The limestone links the HCC to the older monuments of the Civic Center, as does the rest of the earth-toned palette summoned by Tryba.

The building also has a complicated mass as a result of its angled bump-outs and rectilinear setbacks. These volumetric devices are not acts of whimsy, but rather were conceived with the views in mind. The sight of the building from Acoma Plaza, for example, is perfectly framed to call attention to the stack of windows in a wedge-shaped volume that juts out from the Broadway side. This wedge also provides a presence for drivers whizzing by on the busy thoroughfare. And not only that, but from inside, the outlook from the windows that make up the wedge was considered so that visitors can catch an unbelievably wonderful view of the south end of the Civic Center, with works by Gio Ponti, Michael Graves and Daniel Libeskind arranged in a clutch with a lawn in the foreground. The windows are beautifully defined, with stacks of parallel horizontal sunscreens intersecting the vertical mullions that continue from floor to floor.

The principal entrance, which is on Broadway (there's another main one on 12th where school buses will arrive and depart), is set back from the sidewalk at the top of a broad set of stairs. Above is a cast-concrete lintel, which acts as a porch, shielding the window walls that flank the front doors. These doors are surrounded by a hard-edged rectilinear structure, creating a kind of steel-clad tunnel that employs rust as a self-sealing finish. This element has a ceremonial role and conveys to the visitor that entering the HCC is something special.

Inside, the beautifully detailed lobby includes beetle-kill pine planks on the ceiling and a pair of built-in desks covered in Masonville sandstone mined neared Loveland. Tryba selected a massive block of sandstone and had it cut across the grain so that rust-colored clouds interrupt the buff-colored ground. The sandstone panels have been book-matched so that the brown patterns mirror one another as they unfold from panel to panel. One note about the furnishings: The benches made from squared-off Douglas fir logs on metal bases are out of this world and, unlike most of the other movable furniture, were created by Tryba.

Straight ahead is a view of the atrium, which includes a vintage "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" sign in a niche. These signs, once a common sight, were erected along highways at the state's borders. I loved it.

But it's the atrium proper that is truly stunning. I would have to say that it is one of the most beautiful interior spaces in Colorado. Soaring nearly eighty feet to the top of the skylight, the atrium has a complicated shape, like the exterior, and balconies that overlook it from the floors above. The side panels and railings of these balconies have been done in white-frosted glass detailed by silver-colored metal.

One major attraction in the atrium is the topographical map in the floor by artist Steven Weitzman. This map, made of a resin-based terrazzo (the rest of the floors in the public spaces are done in a glass-based terrazzo) has interactive features with steampunk "time machines" that can be drawn across the map and thus "plugged" into stories on video about different places.

The shimmering light-filled stair tower, an extension of the atrium, leads to the upper floors, which house galleries, the library, storage spaces for the archives and collection, offices and a set of rooms that are meant to be revenue-producers though event rentals; I predict they will be. The large space in the southwest corner of the building, marked on the outside by the cantilevered roof fin on the 12th Avenue side, is particularly impressive. These rooms have access to a deck above Broadway that overlooks the city.

Unquestionably, the team from Tryba Architects has provided History Colorado with an ideal seat from which to promote the state and its heritage. So what has the institution done with the enormous exhibition spaces Tryba provided? Well, setting aside the still-unfinished 10,000-square-foot space upstairs that will be used for special exhibitions, and the lower-level gallery that's not yet fitted out, there are two gigantic sets of spaces for exhibits — nearly 15,000 square feet combined — on the first and second floors that have been installed with shows.

The first, just off the atrium, is Destination Colorado, showcasing the utterly unremarkable and now-long-gone farming town of Keota. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't even mention a show with as little appeal as this one has, except that I'm forced to because a part of it — what looks like a Tuff Shed — intrudes into the otherwise meticulously defined atrium. It's so incredibly wrong that I can't believe the idea of putting it there ever got out of a brainstorming session. The clapboard structure is meant to conjure up Keota's train station, but doesn't. The folksy country character of the phony train station recalls the ambience of a Black-eyed Pea restaurant. And its presence assaults the atrium, violating its floor plate and its volume. I don't need to tell you how confrontational this clunky structure is when it collides with the careful Tryba detailing. It even blocks the view of the stair tower. It's a disgrace and should be torn down immediately and reconfigured so that it's within the gallery and not bulging out of it.

The other show, Colorado Stories, purports to "examine Colorado communities from the 1300s to the present," and although it's slightly more sophisticated than Destination Colorado, it shares the same dumbed-down spirit.

Blame for both needs to be put at the feet of History Colorado chief operating officer Kathryn Hill, who gave me a tour of the exhibits and who is aware of my opinion. She revealed herself to be part of what I would label a cult in the art-education realm; rather than trying to elevate the discussion, members of that cult consult interviews, surveys, charts, graphs and focus groups in order to arrive at the lowest common denominator for exhibits. I call these techniques "voodoo metrics" because, despite the fact that employing them doesn't appear to attract visitors, they are still embraced by many institutions across the country.

Hill needs to hire a curator to put together a significant feature, something like The Rockies: Bierstadt to Christo, or Rocky Flats: Or How I Learned to Hate the Bomb. You know — a blockbuster that would make national waves and for which all the material is accessible in collections right here in town, including in History Colorado's own hoard!Until then, let's focus instead on what a gift David Tryba has given the state with the breathtaking neo-modernist History Colorado Center.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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