Friday, December 01, 2006

Denver's Justice Center - A Study in Mediocrity

Michael Paglia, an art and architecture writer for Denver's Westword weekly (a very well-written, hip tabloid that never shirks from taking on the mainstream media) provides an incisive historical perspective on the Denver Justice Center's slip-slide into apparent mediocrity. He writes, in part:
Mayor John Hickenlooper's predecessors made that whole mayoral-legacy business look like a snap.
Paglia then provides a litany of the significant legacy projects that the two Denver mayors who preceded John Hickenlooper left behind: Federico Pena--Coors Field, the Colorado Convention Center, the Denver Central Library extension, Denver International Airport; Wellington Webb--Pepsi Center, Invesco Field at Mile High, the Colorado Convention Center extension, the Hyatt Regency, the Wellington Webb Municipal Office Building, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum.

Paglia notes:

Hickenlooper decided that he wanted to make lasting contributions to Denver as well, and his additions would be made in the most prominent place in town: in and around the Civic Center. However, two of Hick's future dreams for the area have turned into nightmares over the past couple of months.
Paglia then describes the series of unfortunate events that have plagued this legacy-seeking Mayor, Hickenlooper, in his drive to live up to, and perhaps surpass the accomplishments of his predecessors.

Writes Paglia:

The first disturbance came in September, when superstar architect Daniel Libeskind, just weeks before his new Hamilton was to open, shot himself -- and the mayor -- in the foot by unveiling his ridiculous ideas for "enlivening" the Civic Center. To say that Libeskind's proposal has gone over like a lead balloon would be charitable.

...The second disaster involved another superstar architect, Steven Holl. On October 2, during the very week that the Hamilton opened, Holl's contract to design the courthouse portion of the Justice Center project was terminated. So there will never be a building by the New York architect on the site, even though Holl's firm was selected as part of a competition and his design was well on its way to final form. In this case, the mayor -- or, more properly, his underlings -- screwed things up with no help whatsoever from Holl. But the citizens of Denver are the losers, because Holl's proposed building was incredibly imaginative -- which is astounding, since it came out of a bureaucratic process that was anything but.

In both cases, Hickenlooper was ill-served by those he put in charge. In the case of the Civic Center, it's the Civic Center Conservancy, a bunch of people who have few credentials when it comes to dealing with the city's most important set of historic buildings, art and landscapes. And it's essentially the same names and faces who are associated with the Justice Center fiasco, notably project manager "Calamity" James Mejia, who is also a member of the Civic Center Conservancy.

Mejia's public life began only a few years ago, when he was a member of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. When discussions were under way to build a school of the arts, Mejia pulled the race card to suggest that the school had discriminatory entrance policies. The allegations weren't true, of course, but it did get his name in the papers.

Then Mejia was appointed by Webb to be interim director of Denver's Parks and Recreation Department, and in that capacity turned off the city's public fountains. Left in disuse for several years, the mechanical elements of the fountains deteriorated. Mejia's decision will eventually cost the city more than $1 million.

Shutting down the fountains was a response to the drought, as was Mejia's decision to cut the system's water use by half. The results were to be expected: Thousands of trees and bushes died. With no expertise in the cultivation of plants, Mejia apparently didn't realize that if you don't water them, they die. (The rumor that Mejia may wind up at the helm of the Denver Botanic Gardens makes my blood run cold. Earth to the DBG: The guy doesn't know that plants need water!) Then, as if that weren't enough, Mejia was the key player in the destruction of Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park, which has been replaced with sod. (Which, of course, takes water.)

At the time of Skyline's demolition, I pointed out that it was amazing how much damage a single person like Mejia could do. But as low as my expectations of him were, I didn't expect Mejia to cost us a world-class public building. And don't forget, the city still had to pay the architect almost three-quarters of a million dollars for work that will never be implemented. Oh, and there's the several-month delay in the design process, which will cost money, too. I'll never understand why Hickenlooper put Mejia in charge of the Justice Center.
Paglia then details the specifics of Steven Holl's untimely departure from the Denver Justice Center project:

In September, Holl made a presentation of his progress on the schematic design, which was at 50 percent completion. The building that emerged was elegant, sophisticated and clever. It even took green issues into account.

...But Mejia didn't like it from the start, nor did his fellow travelers, Guillermo Vidal, director of the city's Department of Public Works, and Charles DesMoineaux from Jacobs Facilities. The three coordinated their responses. In a sharply worded letter to Brian Klipp back on August 17 -- weeks before the Holl presentation -- Mejia objected, among other things, to the building's "geometry" (its curves and cantilevers) and to the interior materials, confusing the terrazzo-like surfaces Holl suggested with cast concrete. It wasn't my understanding that Mejia, a freelance bureaucrat, had been hired to make aesthetic calls -- or, worse yet, to second-guess the guy who was.

Elaborate and condescending e-mails were sent to the Holl/klipp team from Vidal and DesMoineaux, requiring elaborate responses. In one sad if hilarious exchange, DesMoineaux labels Holl's work as deficient, with a reply from Holl's Chris McVoy saying it wasn't, and then DesMoineaux responding back defensively, wondering if McVoy was calling his professional abilities into question. Then there were the wildly different cost estimates, with Holl admitting that his design was about $3 million over budget, or less than 3 percent over, while the city's estimates were $30 million over, because their equations included expensive materials that Holl hadn't called for.

On September 13, a week after his presentation, Holl took his last shot and wrote a plaintive letter to Hickenlooper, asking him to intervene and replace the city's team, whom he refers to as the project managers, because he felt that they were endangering the quality of the project. (Holl apparently bought the hype about Hickenlooper being interested in architecture.)

But no, with the letter and subsequent teleconference with Hizzoner, Holl was out. And the administration circled the wagons, badmouthing Holl to the press. The worst offender was former city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt -- a Denver Post columnist and the informal public-information officer for the Hickenlooper administration on this issue -- writing on October 15 that Holl's splitting town was actually good news for the city. Talk about serving chicken shit and calling it chicken salad!

The terrible situation Holl describes in his letter to the mayor surrounding the design of the Justice Center courthouse is still true. Unlike a lot of people, I think klipp is capable of doing a first-rate building, but the question is: How is klipp going to come up with something excellent when the people running the project only understand mediocrity?
Michael Paglia's work on the Denver Justice Center and Civic Center Park (here and here) is, as I noted, incisive and quite revealing as to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the major players. I urge you to take a look. He says it all so much better than I do.

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