I have declared this my personal Modernism Week, just because Modernism is on my mind. There have been several events recently honoring Modernist buildings, with tours and talks. This is good, but we have lost so many buildings of that era, there must be some way to preserve that wealth. These buildings are vanishing, especially commercial structures.
If the loss is not downright demolition, developers are now finding ways to tart up handsome buildings with flashy doo-dads or new facades. By and large, these efforts add nothing to Denver’s architectural landscape. Instead, they demean the city.
This situation has been increasingly on my mind since the legendary architect I.M Pei died last month at the age of 102. His work in Denver has not been respected – to put it mildly – including the demolition more than 20 years ago of a key element of Zeckendorf Plaza, a gem called the hyperbolic paraboloid. The craven Denver government folded, supporting an out-of-town “developer” who wanted to make money off a city that was fighting to climb out of economic woes.
Now, with Pei’s passing, I hope that people understand why Denver is developing in a miserable way. It’s nothing new. Yes, there are some fine, new commercial buildings, but the run-of-the-mill non-luxury residential structures are a blight, one step away from an instant slum.
But you know that.
Below, I have added links leading to a column by Michael Paglia, the art and architecture critic for Westword, who rightly called out Denver for treating Pei’s work as trash. There is a link to a panel featuring Paglia and others who understand our losses; the program is sponsored by the Denver Architecture Foundation, including an exhibition by the architectural firm KEPHART. Only a few tickets are left, so get moving. There also is a link to a piece I posted on this blog in March, noting that the works of architect William Muchow were either being torn down or “fixed up.” An era passes, and who remembers? Muchow was a mentor to numerous architects. Now, does anyone care?
Finally, because I like to see my blood pressure skyrocket early in the day, I went into the Denver Public Library’s research area to read the pieces I wrote during the 1990s concerning the city’s efforts to destroy Pei’s hyperbolic paraboloid. The column was written as the paraboloid was being demolished, to be replaced by an “elegant box” and some anorexic ballerinas. The column is pasted under the links.
CULTURAL VANDALS CLAIM NEW VICTIM
Newspaper May 22, 1996 | Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
Author: Mary Voelz Chandler Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer | Page: 47A | Section: Editorial
Friends and co-workers of those of us in the Hyperbolic Paraboloid Defense Movement should be awfully relieved: After more than three years of controversy, the concrete-and-glass structure in the old May D&F complex designed by I.M. Pei’s architectural team is being turned into a big pile of dust and rust.
Maybe now those who can’t believe that anyone could find the place an important piece of Modern design will get their needed rest. They won’t have to worry about pronouncing the building’s name, for one thing. They’ll lose something along the way, but, hey, there’s a good chance another glitzy fun place will snag their attention quickly enough.
This should not be considered an elegy, although driving by the shattered structure on the way to work this week has been a sobering experience. It has brought back too many memories of too many fights. Too many meetings where people said too many things either self-serving or stupid.
The long march to preserve the paraboloid involved one city, two owners, preservationists, funding groups and a flock of architects who ranged from the sincere to totally baffled (Note: I hope they know which lineup they belong on).
It involved inflammatory and confusing reporting, some wonderful cartoons, some lies, some silly rumors and some statements that still make me laugh when I read through old notes. Preservation organizations were hurt, but learned who their friends are.
More important than that, though, this city showed again that when an economic boom hits, and money becomes the bottom line, all bets are off on stopping something that is nothing more than cultural vandalism cloaked in phony civic stewardship.
The conflict won’t leave my mind; what power a building can have.
Instead, call this a proposal for a let’s-make-a-deal situation – just following in the city’s lead, after all.
Defense Movement members will stop talking about the hyperbolic paraboloid, if:
* There are no more comments from friends and co-workers about our muddled taste or misplaced sense of loyalty to our community. Heaven knows that a large convention hotel is exactly what we need to make Denver what it should be in terms of serving its citizens. A bunker-like convention center and giant remote-control airport certainly haven’t worked; maybe a poorly designed, it-could-be-anywhere hotel lobby will do the trick. So what if the owner of the Adam’s Mark Hotel couldn’t get his way by holding a gun to the city’s head in order to have a street closed. He conjured the vision of lost dollars. He trotted out well-meaning designers, some eager to do anything for a commission, then sent them packing. The street stayed open, the paraboloid disappeared.
* There are no more comments from people about how “you can’t save every building, you know.” Of course not; but people who do not try to value worthy examples of each design period miss the point – especially our alleged leaders. This is past into future, an instant portrait of the true state of the city.
* Defense Movement members don’t, in response, have to say things like “Well, it’s not a building that’s easy to know.” So, which good ones are? Or, “Well, cycles of fashion dictate how we feel about buildings as much as any aspect of design.” In other words, taste is fickle. Big news. That’s why garage sales are fun.
In turn, you’ve got a deal if we don’t have to hear things like “Now, let’s put this behind us and go forward.” Or the best one – straight from the lips of the man who owns the property, coming hat in hand to public bodies, who said, in effect: “When I went to Minneapolis, they offered me more.”