Edifice Complex

Denver's new Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, by the Denver firms of David Owen Tryba Architects and RNL Design, is the latest monument to rise at the Civic Center -- which, by the way, is Denver's premier urban space. Because of its prominent location, designing a building here has to be one of the greatest ambitions of any architect working in the city.

The Civic Center, which includes the adjacent State Capitol grounds, is a series of parks defined by the public buildings that surround them or are within them. The entire complex is very beautiful, and most of it has been thoughtfully done, even if there's a hole or two in the design fabric in the form of surface parking lots. And I don't need to say that there shouldn't be.

Besides their architectural importance, the Civic Center buildings have historical and cultural significance. That's because they were designed with an eye not only toward their various functions, but also with due regard to their ceremonial and artistic roles.

There's the State Capitol, which pre-dates the Civic Center, as do a handful of other buildings in the group. Opposite is the City and County Building, and in between and around the edges are institutions such as the Denver Public Library, the Denver Art Museum and even the Denver Mint.

Luxurious materials like cut stone are in abundance here, as is high-quality design. The buildings reflect the history of architecture over the last hundred years or so, making it possible to follow a short course in the stylistic development of American architecture simply by looking at them in the order in which they were built. The earliest represent neo-classicism, the style of choice for public buildings in America beginning in the early nineteenth century. These are followed by modernist structures from the mid- to late-twentieth century. The more recent landmarks are post-modern, with the new Webb Building providing the first example of neo-modernism.

In addition to these fine works of architecture, the monumental sculpture that adorns the Civic Center also records that medium's similar transition from traditional to modern.

The Webb Building includes several commissioned works of art, to the tune of $1.3 million. The art component of the project was administered by the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film.

One of the commissioned pieces, "Building Blocks of the City," by Robert Murase, is installed on the strip of land, called MacIntosh Park, in front of the building. Murase, who hails from Portland, Oregon, was more or less recruited for the project, as opposed to competing for it. That was also the case with the other artists who received commissions for the building. A few weeks ago, Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas proposed eliminating Denver's public-art budget for a year in response to tax-revenue shortfalls. If he had used the Murase installation as an example of wasted program funds, he might have convinced nearly anyone -- even me. For the record, the Murase cost the city a quarter of a million dollars. That's just money, of course -- but think of the wasted stone!

The Murase is very bad and ineptly carried out, and I hereby nominate it as one of the worst sculptures in the Civic Center.

In his piece, Murase reveals that he has no feel for formal composition and even less for site placement. "Building Blocks" appears to have absolutely no relationship to MacIntosh Park, the Civic Center or the new building. Its clunky stone elements are so haphazardly installed that when I first saw it, I honestly thought it hadn't yet been assembled. I believed I was looking at parts that had been deposited willy-nilly by the freight haulers who delivered them. But, no -- the nonsensically arranged blocks are laid out just as Murase intended.

MacIntosh Park is also the site of another aesthetic crime: the insensitive rehab of the former City and County Annex I, the historic modern building that has been incorporated into the new Webb building.

The 1949 Annex I was originally built as the first component of a never realized downtown campus of the University of Denver. Its historic name was the DU Civic Center Classroom Building. For political reasons, it has not been designated a Denver landmark: Although the issue was brought before the city council in May 1999, there were ultimately not enough councilmembers present to form a quorum. Just before the preservation ordinance came up for a vote, councilmembers Cathy Reynolds and Ramona Martinez dramatically walked out of the hearing. Denver politics notwithstanding, the building is listed not once, but twice on the National Register of Historic Places.

Designed by the distinguished Denver firm of Smith, Hegner and Moore, with G. Meredith Musick's firm providing technical support, the building was listed on the National Register in the early '90s because of its high-quality architectural design rather than because of its history or age. It's a superb example of the International style and is thought to be the finest work of early modernism in the state. It is also listed separately on the Register as part of the Civic Center district.

The rehab was not nearly as good as it could have been, and though its character survives, the building has unquestionably been defaced by wrongheaded and ultimately pointless changes. The first of these was the decision to raise the grade along MacIntosh Park, though the park itself remains at street level.

The Annex I used to sit on a low podium, and now it doesn't. There's no reason for this change, not even the one that's been put forward -- that it was a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are two other entrances to the building that do provide handicapped access, and that's all the ADA requires.

Another change is the addition of a door for a not-yet-open coffee shop. The sweeping horizontality of the front elevation -- its defining feature -- is sadly interrupted by this vertical entryway.

What's even more galling is that, because of security concerns, the added door will probably never be functional. To enter the Webb Building, visitors must pass through an airport-style security screening. Will the coffee shop have such a checkpoint? I doubt it. And won't that be a breach of building security? Yes. So while the door may never be used, its very existence degrades the front of the building.

Worse is the new entry canopy and the loss of the marvelous old one. Instead of matching Annex I, the unwanted replacement canopy seems to be a part of the new tower that looms above and behind it. Let's see: a cantilevered erection connected by material to the hulking tower, thrusting from the back and penetrating the front of the Annex I building. Hmmm. I'll leave the vulgar -- if highly appropriate -- metaphor alone.

But these changes are merely unfortunate. One that I'd characterize as potentially disastrous has apparently been scuttled, according to two of its biggest former boosters: architect David Tryba and Councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt, who both personally assured me that the idea is dead.

This terrible notion, conceived by Denver graphic designer Elaine Shiramizu, was to have a poem by the late Colorado poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril carved into the north elevation of the old building, along 15th Street. Covering the wall with such permanent graffiti is an indefensibly bad suggestion, and it would be hard to imagine anything more inappropriate for a building done in the International style, which is characterized by a lack of decoration.

Another problematic element of the Annex I redo is the atrium, which connects the old building to the new tower. It's a handsome enough space, but I wonder why the old building wasn't allowed to stand alone, with the new building across an open courtyard. That way, the annex's dramatic west side, with its elegant glassed-in stair towers and sublime ribbon windows, would have been preserved. Instead, it's been partially cloaked, so that these fabulous exterior features are now interior elements that face the atrium.

There is one positive note at the south end of the atrium (which is the main entrance to the Webb Building). In the forecourt, which faces Colfax Avenue, is an installation by Washington, D.C.-based artist Larry Kirkland. As coordinator for the building's public art, Kirkland is, to some extent, to blame for Murase's installation and Shiramizu's idea. But his installation, which is anchored by a Janus-like head with opposing profiles, is a wonderful addition to the Civic Center's sculpture collection. The double head is made of stacked pieces of carved marble on a black granite base; a gilded plumb bob hangs in an open space in its center. The pavement surrounding the head contains black granite elements that reproduce a map of Denver, along with concentric circles made of square-cut cobblestones. The whole thing is beautiful; it works well with the complex and anchors the busy corner in a thoroughly successful way.

A concern that the heads' two noses could be hazardous to visually impaired pedestrians has been temporarily taken care of with the placement of wooden platforms on the ground below. Eventually, the platforms will be replaced with granite that matches the existing base.

Above and to the left of the atrium entrance is one of Shiramizu's word pieces. I don't object to her work appearing on the new building: The concept may be trite and dated, but it's been part of the plan from the start.

The quote, though, is ironic. It reads: "What Is The City But The People?" Don't think, however, that the word "people" here refers to you or me or the other citizens of Denver -- and this is where the irony comes in. On a plaque mounted on the wall at eye level, the query is reproduced, and below it is a list of names that includes Mayor Wellington Webb, Auditor Don Mares, the Denver City Council and the building's architects, developers and contractors. No, it's clearly not us being referred to in the quotation. It's them.

Once you enter the building, there is another Kirkland installation that appears to be a continuation of his outdoor piece. The two parts are clearly separate, with their connection being more conceptual than physical.

For this installation, the atrium's floor has been decorated with an oval map of the Civic Center. The buildings are done in black granite sheets, the roads in gray granite and the park spaces in green. Hanging from the high ceiling is another gold plumb bob, this one made of coiled metal tubing. Below it is a circle of clear plastic held up by crossed trusses. For some reason -- I'm sure it was intentional on Kirkland's part; I just don't know why -- the hanging element of this part of the piece doesn't line up directly with the floor element.

At the opposite end of the atrium is another installation, a wall piece by New York artist Donald Lipski that rises for several stories. For it, Lipski attached ready-made items such as hard hats, wall clocks and clipboards onto armatures, and arranged them in circles. A lot of people like this Lipski, but I don't think it works.

Creations by several Denver artists were a last-minute addition to the art program. You would think that when contemplating a new city building, the powers that be might have first thought of using artists who live here, just as they chose Denver architects to design it. But, as usual, the top commissions went to out-of-towners. The local artists' works, which were not part of the public-art budget, are installed in the elevator lobbies in the tower, one piece per floor. Some of these, like "The Grand Poobah and the Office Fairy Cut Through Red Tape," by Daniel Salazar, are very nice, but most look like what they are: last-minute additions.

The tower itself, however, is the triumph of the entire project.

Inside, the finishes and the details are sumptuous. Those aforementioned elevator lobbies, for instance, are lined with fancy veneers set in recessed aluminum frames. The elevator cars are designed to match. The carpeting is elegant, as is the contemporary furniture, which cost nearly $11 million.

The exterior is gorgeous, too. Tryba has incorporated various modernist elements in new ways, such as the Chicago-style bay windows at the ends of the tower and the essentially Miesian curtain walls that are extensively articulated with both horizontal and vertical banding in raised metal. The gray color used on the spandrels is right on, too, not just in conjunction with the old Annex I, but also with the rest of the Civic Center. In a clever move, Tryba created a clone of Annex I on the Court Place side of the building, in this way balancing his elaborate and non-symmetrical composition. This Court Place elevation, with its elaborate massing and handsome grand entrance, is stunning.

The arching walls of the tower, which have been compared to the hull of a ship, are an urban-design triumph, for several reasons. The curved shape reflects the ovoid plan of the Civic Center overall, and the mid-rise height of the tower is an excellent transition between the adjacent low-rise buildings and the high-rise buildings of downtown. It also provides a sight stop that helps define and reinforce the northwest corner of the Civic Center.

So, bad decisions in art and historic-preservation matters notwithstanding, the new Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building is pretty darned good. It's just a pity the building isn't great, because with a little more thought and a lot more sensitivity, it really could have been.

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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