Six for Eight

This weekend Denver will be paralyzed by the Summit of the Eight, this year's version of the Group of Seven conferences that have been held for years. These meetings bring together the leaders of the richest countries on earth--the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan--and serve mostly to enrich the lives of caterers and provide a nearly infinite number of photo opportunities for the world leaders. Surely nothing of real substance could possibly result from the endless round of social events that will take up most of the agenda.

Host Bill Clinton has invited Russia's Boris Yeltsin to formally join the club this year, turning the international confab to be held at the Denver Public Library into an elite eight. The invitation is the result of Russia's troublesomeness more than its wealth, since it is hardly the eighth-richest country in the world--more like the richest Third World country, and one with atomic weapons. Russia is clearly the odd nation out in this wealthy group; I wonder how the other delegations felt when Clinton sprung this surprise invitation to make Yeltsin an official member of the club.

I wonder, too, what they'll think of the built and cultural environment of Denver. City officials might want to consider the following Summit of the Eight sightseeing tour to help fill the delegates' downtime with memories of home.

We won't need to worry about impressing the Canadians, since the cultural exchange has almost always gone from south to north, turning Canada into something of an arctic version of the U.S. with a really big French Quarter. But the Canadians did make their mark on Denver during the oil boom of the 1970s and '80s by erecting some of the ugliest and most cheaply built office buildings in the city, so they should feel right at home. Standing out like a sore thumb, for example, is the tacky and formless skyscraper at 410 17th Street that was built with Canadian dollars. Lucky for us, these carpetbaggers from the north woods decamped a decade ago, their coffers empty. Well, most of them. Pat Bowlen is still here.

One of the reasons we're so much like Canada is that both cultures are arguably spinoffs from Britain. The British influence in Denver is palpable, and not just because the traffic signs are in English. Think of all those Tudor-style houses in Park Hill. And what about St. John's Cathedral, at 1313 Clarkson Street on Capitol Hill? That 1908 English gothic revival style building by the New York firm of Gordon, Tracy and Swarthwout is worthy of the Cotswolds.

The French will also find a pied-e-terre to remind them of home: another Capitol Hill cathedral, this one looking like it stepped right out of a French guidebook. It's the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, at 1530 Logan Street, a 1900 design by Detroit's Leon Coquard, who chose the French gothic style as his architectural vocabulary. Not even the nearby McDonald's destroys the Gallic mood--they've got those all over France now, too. The delegates may also want to visit the Denver Art Museum, right next door to the Summit's headquarters in the library, and take in some of the fine French paintings and sculptures from artists such as Renoir, Monet and Maillol. The rest of us will have to wait, though--the DAM is closed to the public during the summit.

The DAM should provide hometown memories for the Italians, as well, since the sleek building itself is the work of Milanese modern master Gio Ponti, in collaboration with Denver's James Sudler. The DAM is the only example of Ponti's sublime architecture in North America, and it's one of only two buildings by the great designer in the entire hemisphere. Other Denver buildings by homegrown architects also conjure up bella Italia. Fisher and Fisher's 1925 South High School, for instance, is a noble example of the Italian Renaissance revival style, though on an American scale--it's not the size of an Italian building but rather of a whole hilltop village in Tuscany.

German immigrants were very important to the development of Denver at the turn of the century. And none more so than the Baron von Richthofen, who in 1883 had German-American architect Alexander Cazin build him a castle at 7020 East 12th Avenue that was designed in the German manner--all towers and battlements, some of them added later by the Denver firm of Biscoe and Benedict. Roll out the barrels. Another bit of the fatherland may be found on Capitol Hill in the form of that stucco bundt cake the Denver Turnverein, at 1570 Clarkson Street. This hall, built in 1921 to a design by George Bettcher, originally housed a German-American club that focused on calisthenics--and socialism. On second thought, maybe the conservatives who run Germany now won't want to check out the Turnverein after all.

Japanese delegates might enjoy a drive through the Hilltop, Belcaro and Crestmoor neighborhoods, where for decades armies of Japanese gardeners have tortured evergreens into magnificent sakai, the outdoor version of bonsai. The Denver Botanic Gardens also features Japanese landscaping around its traditional teahouse. But perhaps the best example of the Japanese influence in Denver is the engaging formalist-style Colorado National Bank Tower of 1972, by Japanese-born American architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building, at 950 17th Street, has recently been sold, and owing to the ravages of nature, the concrete piers are currently being stripped of their marble cladding, which had begun to spall. With any luck, the building will be restored to its former glory shortly.

Thanks to a wave of recent immigrants, Yeltsin should have no trouble finding a banya while he's in town. Unfortunately, though, the best place to see the Russian influence in Denver is probably over at the former Lowry Air Force Base. What with the Cold War over, the base is now being redeveloped, an indication of how the perceived Russian threat has dwindled in recent years. Too bad the PCBs in the groundwater won't go away as quickly.

Whether the delegates will actually take the time to ponder how their respective cultures have affected Denver is questionable, of course. Their free time might better be spent seeing something uniquely American. Touring the public art erected by the administration of Mayor Wellington Webb with the help of First Lady and arts maven Wilma would be a mistake, since it's a bunch of junk. But there is one recently completed public-art project--"Platte Valley Time Vanes," by David Griggs, on the 23rd Street Viaduct--that's worth looking at.

The piece comprises six sculptural elements that have been placed as finials on top of the piers that support the bridge. Four are located at the Coors Field end of the viaduct--two on 23rd Street, two on 22nd Street--and the last two at the 1-25 end of the bridge. The commission was worth $195,000, and it's a shame there wasn't more money, because the viaduct could take another six of these sculptures, maybe even eight.

Griggs's theme is a play on the concept of weather vanes. The weather vane reveals the way the wind blows, the time vane the flow of the times. Each of the sculptures, he says, refers "to the history of the Platte Valley and the people who moved through it."

The valley has long been a center for transportation in Denver, and the idea of movement--in this case the movement of time--is a signature interest for Griggs. "My preoccupation with transportation is practically genetic," he says. "My grandfather ran a railroad, my father an airline, and my brother a ferry."

Given these biographical facts, it's interesting to note that the spectacular "Dual Meridian," Griggs's as-yet unsurpassed masterpiece, is located at Denver International Airport. "Dual Meridian" was unveiled in 1994 to career-establishing acclaim, which surely helped Griggs garner the "Time Vanes" commission as well as others in New Mexico and Alaska.

But Griggs, who came to Denver from Minneapolis in 1979 after an aborted career as a psychologist, is no local art upstart, even if "Dual Meridian" was his first fully developed piece. He's been exhibiting installations locally since 1982, when he created "Betty Boop/Condo Condo" while still a student at CU-Boulder, where he later received his MFA.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that Griggs began to create installations that anticipated such mature work as "Dual Meridian" and the "Time Vanes." But his early pieces were constructed of insubstantial materials like paper and masonite, so they lacked one of the most appealing aspects of his more recent work--solidity. The "Time Vanes" are made of painted steel, some with copper. Fabricated by Denver's Zimmerman Metals, they weigh from 7,000 to 11,000 pounds each. And they look weighty, too.

Four of the six "Time Vanes," all of which have been given nicknames, refer to specific periods over the last one hundred years. On 23rd Street are "Native American," which looks like the silhouettes of three tepees, and "Railroad," which looks like a bridge truss with a smokestack in the center and cowcatchers around the base. "Native American," says Griggs, refers to the Indian encampments that would have occupied the Platte Valley in the 1850s. "Railroad" looks back to the early part of this century, when 100 trains a day went through Union Station.

The two sculptures on 22nd Street take us up to the present. The early twentieth century is represented by the pieces nicknamed "Tree Flame" and "Future Spiral." In "Tree Flame," Griggs has placed a copper silhouette of a bush in the center of a sphere. "It's about Mayor Speer," Griggs says, referring to the legendary Denver pol's "City Beautiful" campaign. "Future Spiral" looks to the 21st century with a spiral of ever-opening satellite dishes.

The final two sculptures, on the viaduct at I-25, don't carry on this march-of-time theme, instead looking to time itself as the subject. "Clockworks" and "Sundial" convey the mechanistic and naturalistic approaches to the passage of time. These last two were late additions to the original commission and are perhaps the finest of the three pairs, though they do look kind of lonely out there.

Griggs's viaduct project is a rare local example of a public-art commission gone right. It's the kind of success worth showing to those distinguished visitors from around the world. Fortunately, you don't need to be a foreign dignitary to take a look.

"Platte Valley Time Vanes," six related sculptures by David Griggs, on permanent display on the 23rd Street viaduct.

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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