The common sense is mostly found below the fold in this post. First, the context. Denver’s newspapers and bloggers are chattering these days about the City’s dumping the headliner big-name out of town architect (Steven Holl) from its huge new Justice Center project. Seems he was running true to his form on recent projects in other places: producing unworkable designs which could not be built within the project’s budget. It’s a courthouse, people. It’s financed with proceeds from the sale of bonds. There won’t be a private sector fund-raising project to pay for any cost overruns as there might be – and have been – for a museum, library, theater or other cultural facility.
Pundits have wrung their hands and piteously mewed their grief that our poor little hick cowtown won’t be a “world class” city if we do silly things like this. In her column in yesterday’s Rocky Mountain News, Mary Voelz Chandler lamented that the City needs an “advocate for public architecture” – literally a whole new publicly-funded job. So we can, I suppose, continue to wow the world with all the “world class” architecture in Denver.
Uh-huh. Like guys in Boston or Seattle or Munich are going to say to the wife, “Gosh, honey, we’ve just got to take our vacation in Denver this year, so we can see that terrific new courthouse building they’ve just opened, and catch their new art museum wing too!” I’m not betting my mortgage payment on that happening any time soon. Especially after the underwhelming review that the City’s over-hyped art museum expansion building got from the New York Times, quoted in full here.
In today’s Denver Post Susan Barnes-Gelt blows the fresh air of common sense into this fog of archi-babble:
It’s good news that New York architect Steven Holl will not be designing Denver’s new Civic Center courthouse. Perhaps it’s a harbinger that Denver’s infatuation with internationally acclaimed architects who care more about building a portfolio than building a city is cooling.
What took so long to end the relationship?
Holl has a history of difficult client relationships. His contract to design a building for the school of architecture at Cornell University was severed when he could not meet the program or the budget. His museum in Kansas City was $60 million over the original $80 million budget and The New York Times Magazine’s May 21 cover story was about a home Holl designed that is uninhabitable – at double the budget.
As early as last May, the New Yorker was complaining about the courthouse’s $127 million budget (approximately $400 per square foot), claiming it wasn’t sufficient to implement his approach.
City documents unearthed by Denver Post reporter George Merritt indicate that Holl’s design was inefficient, nearly $34 million over budget, and did not satisfy the building’s program requirements.
The 2005 Justice Center Campus Urban Design Framework Plan clearly states Denver’s vision. It calls for “a campus fully integrated into the Civic Center District through a language of continuity defined by a family of buildings and streets.” In other words, the fabric of the whole is more important than any individual object.
Holl’s approach was more than a counterpoint to that vision; it was cacophony.
The Justice Center Campus is functionally and physically part of the primary axis that runs from the Capitol to Speer Boulevard. This east-west axis is comprised of structures that house the fundamentals of state and local government: the executive, legislative and judicial branches. It is the obligation of the courthouse to contribute to the dignity, timelessness and gravity implicit in those buildings – democracy, justice and the rule of law.
Holl thumbed his nose at that context, our history, the budget and the building’s program.
Instead, he designed an icon, a monument to his ego. Perhaps he was trying to create a new paradigm for the American courthouse or maybe he was competing with the new Libeskind-designed Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum. But he failed to recognize that an art museum plays a very different role on the civic stage. Art is provocative, challenging and seeks to break the rules. Justice is based on precedent, restraint and adherence to rules.
The placement, design and materials of his building had nothing to do with these values or this place, the site and function of the building or its role as a contributor to the urban context.
Denver citizens and officials played a role in this ill-fated relationship. We are intoxicated by the idea that a disparate collection of iconic architecture might qualify us as a cultural mecca. Our insistence that Denver’s future is linked to the creation of so-called “world-class” architecture as dispensed by famous (i.e., they live somewhere else) designers is foolish.
Consider the Indiana town of Columbus. J. Irwin Miller, owner of the Cummins Engine Co., wanted the residents of his small Midwestern city to experience great architecture. Decades before cheap air travel and cultural tourism were common currency, he decided to bring architecture to his community. Between 1942 and 1965, he offered to pay the design fees on any building if the architect was selected from a list of famous designers he compiled. The city boasts a number of buildings and sculptures by noted mid-century designers: Meier, Pelli, Venturi, Saarinen, Pei, sculptors Henri Moore and Jean Tinguely and noted landscape architect Dan Kiley.
So, do you now want to move there? Start a business there? Book a vacation there? I thought not.
Fabric, not object, defines great cities. The best cities are about people, strong and legible connections and a beautiful, safe and comfortable public realm. Interesting and lively streets articulated by strong, durable buildings that are respectful of context, scale and material make up the DNA of a great city.
Denver is full of talent, energy, history and spirit. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do need to build the city we deserve, a city that is about this place, her history and people.
Susan Barnes-Gelt (firstname.lastname@example.org) served eight years on the Denver City Council and was an aide to former Denver Mayor Federico Peña. Her column appears on alternate Sundays.
I added some bolding for emphasis.