Edifice Complex

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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