Monday, October 30, 2006

Steven Holl's Work - "It is poetic..." - Denver Justice Center

George Hoover, a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado - Denver and a practicing architect, provided in this past Sunday's Denver Post an eloquent view of the Denver Justice Center imbroglio; a view that is tempered by both reason and experience.

Since I'm not sure when the Post will archive this piece, please let me provide some of what Hoover said:

Architect Steven Holl's schematic design for Denver's new courthouse imagined a building that could be a wonderful addition to our city.

Proposed relationships to Civic Center, downtown, the Front Range and the city's essential qualities strongly suggested a building respectful of the context, scale and material character of Denver's urban fabric. There is no hint of the "iconic, object building" decried by some local critics.

...Thus, hyperbole such as "ego- driven icons designed by the famous" is not only misleading, it distracts from the core issue here: how we define, value and realize excellence.

To give merely the sparest of examples of excellence in architecture, I return briefly to Steven Holl. Holl's work manifests excellence, in large part due to the degree it exhibits qualities of which most architects are unaware and to which they do not aspire.

For example, it is little recognized that Holl's work is founded in an important strand of modern thought known as "phenomenology," which concentrates on re-achieving for human experience a direct and primal contact with the world. Holl's most well-known work, the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle, links those who experience it directly with the movement of the sun, the flickering patterns of natural light, the shimmering ripples of a dark pond on a windy day, the real quality of stone, the graininess of wood, the echoes of footsteps and the fragrance of beeswax. It is poetic work.

Holl also emphasized the importance of such relationships in his Justice Center design - moving patterns of dappled sunlight on a courtroom wall, views of distant peaks, surprise vistas into the heart of downtown and a beacon of light.

...From what I have been able to glean about the inner workings of the Justice Center project, the problem appears to lie neither with Denver's infatuation with internationally acclaimed architects, nor with a design unresponsive to Denver's needs. It lies with the inability of the individuals on this particular design team to work together as colleagues.

...Ultimately, the greater good for our city as a whole can only be achieved if we as individual citizens are willing to be truly present for one another, to listen carefully to the heart of meaning inherent in one another's words and actions, to tell the truth without judging or blaming those around us, and to be open to and supportive of how things turn out - even though we may favor and hope for a different outcome.

It's in this spirit that I suggest Mayor John Hickenlooper convene a small advisory group of experienced, diverse, flexible, committed and creative people who have been involved in projects similar to those that Denver has successfully built in recent decades.

Such a group would assist him with the creation of a notable new Justice Center by finding a course of action likely to resolve the present short-term problem in a way that does not compromise Denver's long-term vision for excellence.

The temptation is always to decide in favor of the short-term, expedient solution. We must resist this temptation in favor of the long view and our city's legacy. History has shown that what is practical in the short term is often immeasurably impractical in the long run. What happens next with the Justice Center will affect not only the project itself but also critical civic ventures yet to be.

We have achieved excellence many times before. We must do so again.

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