Debating Starchitecture: A Mile High View

Is there a sweet spot where architectural boldness and innovation meet sensitivity to local context, history, and culture?

11 minute read

September 15, 2014, 8:00 AM PDT

By Dean Saitta

Denver International Airport

Arina P Habich / Shutterstock

It’s one of those no-win debates, but still a useful one. Witold Rybczynski started the latest go-round with a piece for the New York Times Magazine. Rybczynski laments the globalization of civic architecture by a handful of internationally known practitioners or “starchitects.” He asserts that architecture is a social art rather than a personal one, and thus should serve to reflect a society’s values rather than a particular individual’s aesthetic taste. Accordingly, he calls for more “locatecture”: works by local talent whom we might expect to have a better grasp of the particular environmental, historical, and cultural characteristics of place.

James Russell responds in Architizer by suggesting that the debate perpetuated by Rybczynski is “stupid.” While this is a bit extreme, he nonetheless makes some good points. Russell argues that architecture is less a social art than a public one. It is firmly situated in the group life of human beings. It is developed by people working in teams, shaped by the demands of clients, and subject to wider civic approval and buy-in. Moreover, architecture inevitably reflects a society’s values because building anything requires wealth and, for Russell, “wealth will build what it wants” in today’s societies where the 1 percent rules. Finally, architecture is surely a medium of individual expression. It strokes big egos, but it can also advance the state of the art. There’s certainly some truth to Russell’s claim that people in general “like urban spectacle, theatricality, expressiveness, and grand gestures.”

Denver is a great place for evaluating a number of issues in contemporary urbanism, including starchitecture’s value for a city and its people. Denver has been building signature architecture for over 40 years, with contributions from the likes of Gio Ponti, Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, Daniel Libeskind, David Adjaye, and Santiago Calatrava. Some of the more recent additions to the city’s built environment clearly substantiate Russell’s claim that starchitecture is about urban “branding,” with Big Name designers used to attract donors, generate publicity, and enhance a city’s international prestige.

Lately there’s been a backlash to the Big Name branding strategy. Former Denver Post reporter J. Sebastian Sinisi argues that our local architects deserve more recognition and respect, implying that the city would be better off if we awarded them a few more high profile commissions. Sinisi uses Denver-based architect Curtis Fentress as Exhibit A. Fentress’s highly original Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport (DIA) is wonderfully evocative of the Rocky Mountains or a Plains Indian tipi village, depending on your perspective. Jeppesen Terminal has achieved iconic status and propelled Fentress into other commissions for airport terminal building worldwide (e.g., in Los Angeles, Seoul, and Dohar, Qatar). But the vast majority of Denver architects toil in relative obscurity. One of Sinisi’s interviewees suggests that this might be an issue with poor self-promotion, something that architects are typically good at. Obscurity could also be a function of the competitive processes by which architects win commissions: are the competitions as open and inclusive as they could be? But obscurity could also mean that locatects don’t design for place in visually exciting or culturally redeeming ways. As noted in my last Planetizen post, Denver has a very high density of architects compared to other American cities. We might expect a few more notable buildings than are currently on offer.

Denver Art Museum, North Building, by Gio Ponti (Photograph by D. Saitta)

My personal opinion is that global Big Names can play key roles in building at the local level. We need all the visually stimulating buildings that we can get, and if they resonate with local histories and cultures then so much the better. But at the very least they should be good conversation-starters. Gio Ponti’s original building for the Denver Art Museum (DAM), the first and only Ponti building in the United States, is interesting in this regard. Ponti explained his design back in 1971 by saying that “Art is a treasure, and these thin but jealous walls defend it.” Ponti’s building is visually stimulating but perhaps altogether wrong for an art museum in today’s world. Museums are being challenged to better connect with the public. Their governing missions are emphasizing greater public outreach and inclusion. Inclusivity is a tough nut to crack where admission fees are steep, so other aspects of the museum-going experience (e.g., exhibitions, special programming, internal design, and architectural form) need to do much heavier lifting. Ponti’s castle is a useful visual reminder of what a museum building shouldn't look like in an Age of Civic Engagement. The potential for disconnect between a civic institution’s architecture and its governing mission should prompt us to think about how buildings can be designed to produce a variety of meanings, and maintain the capacity to be “read” differently by citizens, across time and changing circumstances.

Left: Wells Fargo Center, by Philip Johnson. Right: "The Hard Edge of Postmodernity" (Photographs by D. Saitta)

Philip Johnson’s postmodern Wells Fargo Center (or, as it’s known locally, the “Cash Register” building) has at least as much iconic status as Fentress’s Jeppesen Terminal. Its image graces civic and corporate logos all over town. Wells Fargo Center was built early in the 1980s as part of that decade’s trend toward signature skyscrapers. Yet all things being equal it’s a terrible fit for the local climate. Rybczynski notes that the glass-roofed atrium of Johnson’s IDS Center in Minneapolis periodically suffers leaks and glass breakage from the ice that falls from its adjacent tower. Similarly, in the Wells Fargo Center’s early years snow and ice sliding off its curved roofline endangered pedestrians at the street-level below. The installation of heating lines eventually fixed that problem. A problem that’s less easily fixed is the pedestrian experience on those adjacent streets that were once showered with ice. It’s a lonely one even today, exacerbated by what Mike Davis has called the “hard edge of postmodernity.”

Denver Public Library, by Michael Graves (Photograph by D. Saitta)

A couple of years ago Michael Graves’s Denver Public Library was ranked by California Home+Design Magazine (CAHD) as one of 25 American buildings most in need of demolition. CAHD says:

"While we appreciate architect Michael Graves‘ attempt to break out of the box, this postmodern project is a slight catastrophy [sic]. Funky can be good, but this is just fugly."

I rather like the Denver Public Library building for introducing a bit of playfulness and whimsy into the city. It has grown on many of us locals, including veteran city watcher Susan Barnes-Gelt, who otherwise can be pretty critical of Denver’s urban planning and architecture. I’m guessing that kids like it too and, if so, then that’s a significant enough reason to give it some love.

Denver Art Museum, Hamilton Building, by Daniel Libeskind (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Another Denver building that’s loved and hated in equal measure is Daniel Libeskind’s deconstructivist addition to the Denver Art Museum (also pictured in the banner image accompanying Russell's Architizer piece). In an essay for Arch Daily Libeskind says that the fractured form of his Frederic C. Hamilton Building is inspired by:

"…The amazing vitality and growth of Denver—from its foundation to the present… Coupled with the magnificent topography with its breathtaking views of the sky and the Rocky Mountains, the dialogue between the boldness of construction and the romanticism of the landscape creates a unique place in the world." 

Sounds good, but the rub is that Libeskind’s Hamilton Building hardly honors the uniqueness of Denver. Its form is akin to those of museum building additions he has produced for several other cities (e.g., Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, the Dresden Museum of Military History). Such is the nature of an architectural brand. Still open is the question of the building's visual appeal to citizens of minority cultural backgrounds, a demographic that we’d like to get into Denver museums with greater frequency and whose architectural tastes might be more rooted in a local vernacular. And although ostensibly sensitive to temperature and weather conditions unique to Denver, the Hamilton Building doesn’t appear to shed snow very well and thus repeats the errors of the Cash Register Building more than 20 years later:

(Photograph by D. Saitta)

Just a year after DAM opened its Hamilton Building the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) opened a new building in lower downtown Denver designed by David Adjaye. Adjaye’s building serves, in some regards, as a useful contrast to Libeskind’s. Adjaye's first museum commission, the MCA sits seamlessly in its context. Its gray-black glass facade reflects neighboring buildings, and thus it is both in and of the city. The building was purposely designed to minimize boundaries between the exterior spaces of the city and the interior galleries of the museum. For example, an entrance ramp blurs the distinction between street and building, between public and private space. Denver’s MCA doesn’t have quite the physical presence and intimate connection to local cultural context as Adjaye’s Idea Store in London, and its exterior spaces don’t encourage social mixing as well as the plazas around DAM. But it does make a subtle new architectural statement for Denver. It brings more modesty and less hubris to the signature civic building, or what Anna Klingmann would alternatively describe as more “Om” and less “Wow.”

Museum of Contemporary Art, by David Adjaye (Photograph by D. Saitta)

Subtlety and modesty are not words typically associated with the most recent star architect to build in Denver, Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava, along with fellow luminary Frank Gehry, has been taking his lumps globally for design flaws and cost overruns. Here in Denver budget cutbacks compromised fulfillment of Calatrava’s design for a new hotel and transit hub at DIA. Calatrava eventually bailed on the project, with lawyers determining that DIA could keep his basic plan but not the feathery white steel elements that define his work. Locatects were brought in to save the day, but this may have made things worse. The modified design, as described by Denver Post architecture critic Ray Mark Rinaldi, is “more of a box than the bird Calatrava envisioned”, and is “dominated by clear glass rather than white steel.” Asked whether the $13 million paid to Calatrava was wasted, DIA Manager Kim Day tried to put the best face on things:

"No, we absolutely did not waste money. [Calatrava] started this off, developed a great concept for us… When we lost him, the [local] architects removed the signature architectural elements—strong, white elements on top of the hotel that held up the canopy over the train. If you look through an architectural book on Calatrava work, almost everything has these strong white elements—those are gone. As a result, our project is light and airy and simpler…"

Denver International Airport, Jeppesen Terminal and rising Hotel/Transit Hub (Photograph by D. Saitta)

I’m wondering why DIA would engage Calatrava in the first place if his signature elements were viewed as redundant and his previous work predictive of an overall design that would be too complex and insufficiently “light and airy.” Clearly, the original choice of Calatrava was all about branding. Plus, if any aspect of Calatrava’s work would have been capable of knitting the hotel and transit hub into Curtis Fentress’s existing Jeppesen Terminal it’s precisely Calatrava’s signature “bony” white elements. Instead, we now have webs of steel and what Rinaldi describes as “muscular” 14-story walls of glass—which doesn’t exactly square with the “light and airy” characterization offered by Day. A Denver Post letter from Dean Toda identifies the central problem of the new hybrid design while it skewers local architectural sensibilities more generally:

"I had to laugh at Ray Mark Rinaldi’s assertion that the proposed redesign for a hotel at the Denver International Airport terminal “fits in with design of DIA.” Really, the only thing that could fit in with the current Jeppesen Terminal would be something that effectively imitates it, or something that lies low and doesn’t interfere with the terminal’s magnificent silhouette. Instead, the redesign, like the Santiago Calatrava original, blocks our view of the terminal and destroys the visual effect, as seen from afar, of the tepee village on the prairie. DIA’s decision on this hotel has consequences for all of us. The Curt Fentress-designed Jeppesen Terminal is not merely “one of the city’s most popular buildings,” as Rinaldi describes it. It is the most iconic edifice in Colorado and one of the signature buildings of the American West. To hide it behind the walls of a hotel would broadcast to the world that Denver doesn’t have enough sense to recognize bold, exciting architecture in its own backyard."

Thus, starchitects in Denver have both enhanced and eroded the quality of our built environment. The same can be said of our locatects. There’s no lack of architectural talent at either of these scales but we still see relatively little exciting work in the sweet spot where Russell’s interest in boldness and innovation meets Rybczynski’s interest in local environment, history, culture, and architectural precedent. The sweet spot is rarely hit for big civic and corporate buildings and—tragically—almost never hit for the buildings in which we conduct most of our lives: apartment houses, markets, department stores, schools, libraries, community centers, and other spaces of everyday social exchange. There’s plenty of blame to share for what James Howard Kunstler famously calls “the immersive ugliness of our everyday [built] environment in America.”

Civic Center Park, Denver, with buildings by Graves, Libeskind, and Ponti in the background (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe the best thing about Denver’s star architecture is its clustering around the city’s oldest example, Civic Center Park. This original City Beautiful set piece (one of America’s best preserved) was designed by Daniel Burnham protégé Edward H. Bennett, with some contributions from Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. I think it’s marvelous to stand in the middle of Civic Center and be able to view, in a single field of vision, terrific examples of the world’s great traditions of building: neo-classicism, modernism, postmodernism, and deconstructivism. Daniel Libeskind says he had this view in mind when he pitched his Hamilton Wing

"…not as a stand alone building, but as part of a composition of public spaces, monuments and gateways in this developing part of the city, contributing to the synergy amongst neighbors, large and intimate.”  

Whether the composition generates any special community synergy is debatable. But I’ll still join the Financial Times of London'Edwin Heathcote and the Denver Post’s Mary Voelz Chandler in appreciating the Graves, Libeskind, and Ponti buildings for their complementarity as concerns scale, surface treatment, color, light reflectivity, and other details of design. Minimally, the tableau is fabulous for pedagogical purposes, to get students thinking about the meaning and social impact of civic architecture and the range of design choices available to us. The buildings around Civic Center likely don’t represent the kind of “aesthetic progress” imagined or desired by Charles Mulford Robinson and other City Beautiful pioneers. The grouping’s tribute to white, Western architectural tastes can also be off-putting. But the composition certainly constitutes an impressive catalogue of aesthetic change. And that, for my money, makes it one of starchitecture’s better contributions to Denver placemaking. 

Dean Saitta

Dean Saitta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Urban Studies program at the University of Denver. He teaches courses in urban anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary anthropology. He writes about issues facing the contemporary city from an archaeological, historical, and cross-cultural perspective. He is a co-author of "Denver: An Archaeological History", and author of "Intercultural Urbanism: City Planning from the Ancient World to the Modern Day."

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