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.