Mary Voelz Chandler has everything it takes to be a high-minded architecture critic: a firm grasp of the subject, excellent taste, and the courage to call out the good and the bad. It’s not as easy as it sounds in a midsize city like Denver, where you have to meet the architects you write about at the King Soopers.
Chandler is also tireless, a quality that she has seen throughout the many years of covering art and design for the Rocky Mountain News and on her side project, The Guide to Denver Architecture (Fulcrum, $ 29.99 ), first published in 2001 and significantly updated, has served us well this summer.
The guide, supported by the Denver Architecture Foundation, chronicles the best buildings in the city. It is a whopping 324 pages, and is both a handy reference and a building-to-building glimpse of how Denver’s ambitions became a reality over the years.
With Chandler, a communications specialist at GH Phipps Construction, who has a reputation for being open-minded and taking over buildings where finances are too far ahead of design, we decided to leave her words alone on a Q&A.
Q: OK Mary, you’ve just researched and cataloged all of the major architecture in the area – hundreds and hundreds of buildings. Just give it to us, do we have much to be proud of?
ON: We do, but I say knowing that some new projects may require more thought than action. We’ve lost some significant buildings in the past few decades, and the post-economic collapse focus on bottom line and return on investment (ROI) has produced some pretty cheap looking buildings. I think a lot of architects realize that if they try, they can really have some power. The old line says that a building is only as good as the customer; that’s really true today.
Q: Los Angeles architect Mark Lee was in Denver for a lecture last week and criticized the city gently. He noticed big hits like the Museum of Contemporary Art but then threw us on as average. Is he right
ON: I’m not sure how he defines average. But until owners and developers really believe in their hearts and purses that good design has an impact on our lives and behavior, they may not give us more buildings to remember.
We have to look at them, work in them, live in them – usually for a long time. The owners and developers can often just move elsewhere (think some of the buildings in the Golden Triangle – yikes). But we are here.
I think there is a certain distrust of the new and the unusual here. Why else would some people at DIA be so overwhelmed by the blue Mustang? “Really?” Plus, the city of Denver needs to help, stop occasionally, or find a way to work around a bad plan: The Adam’s Mark debacle of the 1990s is something Denver should have learned from, but it didn’t. The former campus of the University of Colorado in Ninth and Colorado – where are our executives going? How sustainable and thoughtful is it to demolish some important buildings, including one from the 1990s?
Q: This is the second “Guide to Denver Architecture.” I was delighted to see that the new townhouses named 1200 Delaware worked with you. Tell us three more new entries and why you like them.
ON: The Metro State Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center is a fascinating building that occupies an important space: the corner of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway. Very impressive. For the [new edition]We added new buildings and removed some from the 2001 edition. But we also revisited some buildings that did not make it into the first edition due to lack of space. The modern mid-century Montclair homes on Olive, Oneida, and Pontiac Streets are now operational. Unfortunately, one of them recently received an unsympathetic addition.
When friends say, “Did you see that (whatever) on X Street and Y Street?” I walk by. This created a beautiful stone residence on East 25th Avenue and the High Street in the book.
Q: What other great buildings are not appreciated?
ON: For one, these mid-century modern houses; We have lost so many important buildings from this period that it is important to keep solid exponents of this style in place to blend old and new together. It matters.
Also the RiNo Gateway sculptures in the River North district and the beautifully converted former military structures in Lowry, which give this development a meaning. Not every “great building” has to be new and shiny, just honest in design, materials, details and intentions.
Q: You wrote a lot more this time. The descriptions read like some of your top Rocky Mountain News newspaper columns.
ON: Some projects were able to rely on basic facts, especially the historical structures that tell their own story. Some projects require commentary, background information, and a different approach as they play a prominent role in the field.
Q: People always ask for my favorite historic building and I always say the Byron White Courthouse from 1901 downtown with its tall pillars. What is your favorite?
ON: Simple: The Equitable Building, 730 17th St. It was completed before the silver crash hit and that shows in the luxurious materials and smart design elements – like light spaces that allow for more windows. And the interior is superb.
Q: One of the most notable buildings since the first edition is the Denver Art Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. All these outer shards and angled gallery walls give me a headache.
ON: I do not share your opinion. I believe the Hamilton spearheaded the development of the architecture around the edges of the Civic Center and shows respect for the Gio Ponti building on the other side of West 13th Avenue in the color and shape of the titanium plates. In addition, the curators and exhibition staff have figured out how they can use these gallery spaces to give exhibitions real impact – see Nancy Blomberg’s “Red, White and Fat”, a component of “Spun”. It’s breathtaking, like a Navajo-themed cathedral.
Q: You seem to like the Museum of Contemporary Art.
ON: I liked it better before the museum started tinkering with it. Architect David Adjaye really knew how to keep the future of design in Central Platte Valley in mind and be in line with the mission of showing contemporary art.
Q: And it’s pretty clear that the new Ralph Carr Judicial Center will make you spit up.
ON: No, that makes me sad. I believe buildings should be in keeping with their times, and in the Civic Center, design and material evolution should always be considered, as should scaling.
Q: What do you think of the building boom in the Highland area?
ON: It’s pretty interesting, if inconsistent. There are some outstanding housing projects out there, but some that appear derived. Nevertheless, trying to merge the new with the old is always a challenge, especially on narrow lots in a suddenly “hot” neighborhood.
Q: The last chapter of the book “Rest in Peace” made me cry. Really. Which of the now demolished buildings do you miss the most?
ON: It has to be the hyperbolic paraboloid that was part of the old May D&F ensemble. The demolition was the perfect storm of lack of civic will, desperation to fortify the end of 16th Street Mall, and a new owner out of town who just didn’t understand what could be done with this wonderful structure.
Q: What question do you wish I had asked?
ON: How about “why should people care?” I believe that our environment shapes us in ways we may never know and that recognizing quality and curiosity is key to making us whole.
Q: Let’s end on a happy note. Say something happy about Denver architecture.
ON: Anyone who has written about architecture, art and monument preservation for years has to be optimistic. I try to hope for the best and that the talented architects in our region will not give up trying. The future demands it.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, [email protected] or twitter.com/rayrinaldi
Mary Voelz Chandler’s quick hits
Current outstanding results
We asked the author of the updated “Guide to Architecture in Denver” to rate some new Denver buildings on a scale of 1 to 10.
Coors field: 8
Good to carry and the scales are good.
Hyatt Regency Convention Center: Aug.
Strong design, especially compared to some of the new downtown hotels.
Colorado Convention Center: Jan.
It has grown on me and has an impact.
Clyfford Still Museum: 10
A perfect combination of architecture and art.
Four Seasons Hotel: 5
Get a lot of support from the interior.
The Denver Post Building: 7
Well compatible with the Webb building, and it introduced white to the conversation on the edge of the Civic Center.
Denver Police Crime Laboratory: Sept.
Fascinating contemporary design and filled the Gobi desert in front of the police building.