Civics Centered

In May 2005, Denver voters approved the financing for a new multi-part Justice Center complex with a municipal courthouse and a jail to be built in the greater Civic Center area. I thought that particular spot, being right next door to the United States Mint, was such an odd choice that it bordered on slapstick comedy ("Blind Justice," March 3, 2005). And unfortunately, as with all things that start out on the wrong foot, the troubles are already starting to cascade.

Though the courthouse commission comes with less money than the jailhouse gig, it is clearly the high-status job, and some of the most important architects in the world competed for it, including Lord Norman Foster, Richard Meier and Robert A.M. Stern. Isn't it hard to believe that living legends would care about such a small deal? A selection committee chose Steven Holl for the courthouse, and though he is not as famous as Foster, Meier or Stern, he is still one of the architectural hotshots of our time. Where I see a potential problem is how the chosen jail architect, Hartman-Cox Architects (a solid and nationally known firm), will relate to Holl. The stylistic approaches of the two are utterly antithetical, as Holl is a leading neo-modernist while Hartman-Cox is up to its neck in neo-traditionalism. It's hard to imagine an odder couple teaming up to build separate elements of the same project; it's comparable to a collaborative work of art by Damien Hirst and Thomas Kincaid.

So how did this come to pass? Political compromise ruled the selection committee, and not good design judgment.

The list of finalists for both the jail and the courthouse commissions included neo-modernists and neo-traditionalists, which I assume was so that stylistically compatible teams could be readily assembled for either building regardless of which approach was chosen. For example, if a neo-modernist was chosen for the courthouse, then the committee could easily select a neo-modernist from its list, and vice versa. But for that to have worked, the selection committee had to know something about architecture. As it is, I find it hard to imagine how the chosen designs can look good together -- unless that square peg, Hartman-Cox, can be forced into Holl's neo-modernist round hole, because no one's going to tell him what to do. One thing is for certain: As the project's master urban-design architect, David Owen Tryba Architects has its work cut out for it in making the various components function together coherently. Good luck.

But wait, here's yet another problem of architectural compatibility: A third component to the Justice Center complex, the parking garage/post office combination, is being done by AR7 HooverDesmondArchitects, which replaced the original selection, Barber Architecture. Oddly, the garage-and-post-office structure will be designed and built before the courthouse is even out of the conceptual stage. The courthouse clearly should be the pacesetter for the whole project, but because the garage and post office are going up first, that design can't possibly respond in any specific way to the future courthouse. At least AR7 is a dyed-in-the-wool neo-modernist firm, so its building should relate, at least broadly, to whatever Holl comes up with.

I can't help but think that with three separate buildings by three different designers, the Justice Center will not be simpatico overall. But I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

By putting the Justice Center west of the U.S. Mint, the greater Civic Center area extends halfway to Speer Boulevard along Colfax Avenue. On the other end, it runs up to Grant Street east of the State Capitol Building. It's the premier urban space in Denver and is ringed by some of the most important institutions in the state, many of which are housed in notable landmark buildings. The overall plan is neo-classical and is more than a century old. Its dignified design was intended to represent the highest civic values of the community, and it does a good job of that.

If I were Denver's planning czar in charge of the Civic Center, the first thing I'd do is shore up the area's borders where it abuts downtown, Capitol Hill and the Golden Triangle. Some selective demolition and preservation would be in order. All of the surface parking lots should be eliminated and replaced with either new buildings or additional green spaces, and there should be landscape improvements made to lawns and parks -- especially to the median on West Colfax Avenue.

That's about all that needs to be done, and nothing at all needs to happen to the heart of the area, Civic Center Park, more or less the front lawn of the City and County Building. Yet secret plans to monkey with it are being overseen by volunteers serving on the Civic Center Conservancy. Everything about the plan thus far is very hush-hush, and those Conservancy volunteers have been sworn to secrecy regarding the details. Stupid me, I thought the Civic Center was public.

Here's what I know: The city engaged Studio Daniel Libeskind to do some master planning for the Civic Center. I do love the Denver Art Museum's almost-completed Hamilton Building by Libeskind, but, frankly, he wouldn't be my first choice for dealing with a neo-classical plan like the Civic Center.

As the Hamilton demonstrates, Libeskind is the king of theatrical architecture, so it would be hard to criticize him for coming up with some outlandish ideas for the elegantly restrained Civic Center. It's his specialty, after all. But by the same token, you can't blame those in the community who are already howling from the rooftops about some aspects of the plan that have been leaked.

One idea that has floated up from the secret meetings has people clutching their chests in horror: vandalizing Gio Ponti's Denver Art Museum. Specifically, it has been suggested that the sculptural aggregate wall topped by a perfectly proportioned wrought-iron fence surrounding the DAM's sculpture garden be torn down to provide better access to Bannock Street. Apparently, the fact that it's an integral component of Ponti's design for the museum -- it reinforces the composition's castle references -- seems to matter not. I just can't believe this idea will go very far, since it's already being so widely ridiculed. And what about Lewis Sharp, the DAM's director? I can't believe he'd go for something this ill-conceived.

I wait with bated breath for the unveiling of the plan, but I hope Mayor John Hickenlooper uses those never-fail political instincts of his to get rid of the things that are guaranteed to make a lot of people see red -- like messing with Ponti's masterpiece.

Gosh, although I expected it, I'm still surprised by the outpouring of appreciation in the dailies for City Librarian Rick Ashton, who recently announced his retirement. Invariably, these writers credit Ashton with the dazzling Central Library, a two-building complex on the Civic Center comprising the historic 1950s Burnham Hoyt-designed building and the impressive 1990s wing by post-modern pioneer Michael Graves. This is interesting, because Ashton was opposed to the building when it was proposed ("Biblio File," March 29, 1995). Ashton fought both saving the old library and creating a landmark-worthy addition. He had to be forced to accept the plan by former mayor Federico Peña, a visionary who had a great appreciation for the existing character of Denver.

Ashton wanted to demolish the Hoyt and replace it with a square, multi-story, windowless box designed by library specialists. His argument, presented with an arrogance that became well-known to the library's staffers, was that libraries had to be square, so that every part was equidistant from central information desks, and that they shouldn't have windows, so that shelves could go along the exterior walls.

I remember being at a meeting where the late Al Cohen was presenting a proposal to build the new library across the street, on the block south of West 13th Avenue along Broadway. Cohen, like so many others, wanted to save the existing Hoyt building, and this was seen as a way to do that. Ashton hated the Hoyt, so he came up with some reason that Cohen's idea wouldn't work: If the library were to be built on the Cohen site (a block away), he said, the entrance would be too remote from the bus stop at West 14th Avenue Parkway and Broadway! I don't remember who piped up and said with a straight face, "Rick, we can move the bus stop," but whoever it was tore the whole room up.

The worst thing about Ashton wasn't his humorous attempts at manipulation, however, but the way he demoralized the staff, running off many hardworking employees over the years. In all my many visits to the library, the librarians would often tell me things -- off the record, of course -- but not once did they direct a single syllable of praise his way.

I personally am glad that Ashton's going to be spending more time with his grandchildren and no more time yelling at hardworking librarians. I just hope his successor is better, not worse. But why think about that now? Let's just revel in the thought that he's finally gone.

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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