Aaron Mulligan returned to Denver in 2017 after grad school in New York City with a heightened awareness of what a city could — and should — be with better planning. That concept has been on his mind ever since, and finally became concrete with Translating the Building, an exhibition opening August 2 at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park.
“I came back keenly aware of conversations pertaining to city planning in Denver, and all the frustrations and issues being discussed, like gentrification and too much traffic,” Mulligan says. “I could tell that the new architecture was ugly, but I’m not a professional architect, so I don’t understand what’s wrong with it. A lot of people aren't aware how it could be done better, so I thought it would be nice to have a conversation about how to do it better.”
Mulligan talked about these issues in depth for Westword’s Colorado Creatives series last year, noting that older, more established cities on the East Coast came of age when people didn’t drive cars, and therefore have better infrastructure for walkability and mass-transit options. At the time, he envisioned hosting an exhibit that would suggest ways in which Denver could turn itself around. But rather than compare Denver to New York, a sure impossibility in terms of exacting changes here, he imagined a show that would be more speculative, more imaginative.
“I thought, what can I do with what I have as a curator?” Mulligan continues. “What can I provide the public in response to this issue?”
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Mulligan felt that architects themselves — the ones who followed a calling higher than the workaday status quo — would be most effective in triggering positive discussions about ways to improve Denver’s ungainly growth. “Architects spend time having conversations about these issues while they’re in school, but they don't always go on to translate that into their practices,” he explains. “You do what the money tells you, and don’t realize your dream projects. Many architects are thirsty for more visionary opportunities.”
He researched potential participants and then sent out a proposal for such a show. “I used to be more intimidated about reaching out,” Mulligan admits, but as he became more established in Denver as an artist, and as a curator and co-founder of JuiceBox Gallery, it became easier. “If you reach out to a lot of people, you can count on a small percentage to respond," he adds. "So I rolled the dice.”
Ultimately, his national search narrowed down to a list of architects who fit the right profile, and “I’m grateful that they responded," he says. "These names all felt right for stirring up a conversation.”
One of the architects, Jordan Gravely of the local firm Neoera, took on some of the curational duties and helped Mulligan secure the McNichols Building as a venue. “She pointed out that the Webb Municipal Building, where architects need to go for building permits, is right in front of McNichols,” Mulligan says. “The McNichols Building felt like the perfect choice, and it’s in close proximity to some of Denver’s other architecturally great buildings, like the art museum, the library and the Clyfford Still Museum.”
With help from Shanna Shelby of the McNichols Cultural Partner Program, Mulligan was able to secure grant money to help make Translating the Building a reality.
What will people see as they walk through the exhibition? “We asked the architects what conversation they want to have,” says Mulligan. “But the main intention is to propose a model for architecture of the future. The projects didn’t necessarily need to be realistic; we wanted them to stimulate the imagination. Each responded in different ways.”
The BairBalliet team of Kristy Balliet and Kelly Bair went straight for a sci-fi vision. “They did something more fantastic in scope, by actually thinking about how you approach a building — how you enter it," Mulligan explains. "What if you were to fly into the building — how would the building receive us? How would they anticipate us entering them?”
In contrast, Rick Sommerfeld, a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado Denver and director of the school’s Colorado Building Workshop design and build program, chose a more down-to-earth subject: materials, and how to make more sustainable building choices. And Miami architect Germane Barnes’s project responds to issues of gentrification and displacement. “He tells the story of city development through the lens of personal identity,” Mulligan notes.
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Mulligan wants Translating the Building to be as entertaining as it is informational. “I hope people will feel like this is a worthwhile conversation to have, and that they will find themselves wanting to have more convos on the subject,” he says. “Individual architects might resonate with different people thinking about what we should do as a city.”
Mulligan is most excited about the panel discussion planned for the show’s opening reception on April 4, with panelists Donald Burnes of the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness, Jill Locantore of WalkDenver and Black Cube curator Cortney Lane Stell, who will focus on public art. To keep conversation flowing, the Colorado Cider Company and Novo Coffee will be pouring hot and cold drinks.
“Calling it a meet-up on city planning sounds really lame,” Mulligan jokes. “I’m trying to make it come across as something more enjoyable. How do you get a group together to sit in on the city council? That’s not stiff at all! I’d rather go to a bar with friends.”
Translating the Building opens on Friday, August 2, and runs through August 25 on the first floor of the McNichols Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue. There's a free panel discussion at 3 p.m. Sunday, August 4, followed by a reception from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Learn more and RSVP for the August 4 events at eventbrite.com.