Museum organizers should be going all-local

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Colorado Springs architects get no respect. It must be galling to be shut out, to see the most nationally significant regional architectural commission since the Air Force Academy go to an out-of-town firm.

Earlier this week, we learned that the U.S. Olympic Museum organizers had chosen Colorado Springs-based contractor GE Johnson Construction Co. to build the yet-to-be-designed downtown facility.

Meanwhile, Denver firm Anderson Mason Dale was chosen as the museum’s executive architect. A Colorado Springs firm, RTA Architects, was a finalist but didn’t win the prize. 

GE Johnson, founded in 1967, has a long and illustrious history in Colorado Springs. The company recently completed the $49 million remodeling of Broadmoor West. GE Johnson’s project list includes the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts, Penrose Hospital East Tower, Tri-Lakes YMCA, the Penrose Cancer Center, the USOC headquarters building and Plaza of the Rockies. 

AMD was the executive architect for Colorado College’s Cornerstone Arts Center as well. That may have weighed heavily in their favor, since former Colorado College President Dick Celeste heads the Olympic Museum project.

The project’s design architect has yet to be selected. The finalists include Diller Scofidio Renfro, Fentress Architects, Morphosis Architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects and Rex Architecture.

Fentress, the firm that designed the iconic tent-roofed terminal of Denver International Airport, is Denver-based, but its four competitors are based elsewhere.

When the Air Force Academy was constructed in the late 1950s, Colorado Springs was a town of fewer than 50,000 residents. No local firms had the staff, experience or ability to undertake such a project. The architect of record, New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, had all three.

But now we’re a real city. RTA is one of multiple local firms capable of executing such a project, and it may be that the museum would be well served by local representation on the design team.

Yet by committing to the creation of an “iconic structure,” Celeste may have effectively disqualified local firms. Iconic structures are built by what are known as starchitects — look at the Denver Art Museum and the Cornerstone Arts Center.

The “starchitect” community is relatively small, self-regarding and given to monumental excess, often expressed in florid rhetoric that seems to appeal to their clients.

Years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote a memorable essay, “The Painted Word,” skewering the art world’s lofty pretensions. He might have been writing about famous architects — here, for example, is an excerpt describing the Cornerstone Arts Center from the website of design architect Antoine Predock:

“The design for the building takes into account the essence of the site, expressed by paths converging on and crossing the site, views toward Pikes Peak and an aspiration toward the sky. The facility will serve as the physical backbone of the arts culture on campus, defining passages and nodal points within and beyond the building, setting the stage for catalytic possibilities of encounter, creating a weblike network between art and other academic disciplines and the Colorado College community…

“Anyone entering the building becomes a potential spectator or performer where the architecture itself is the stage. The new facility houses thrust and studio theaters, rehearsal rooms for drama, music and dance, the Colorado College experimental art gallery and technology labs for media arts, all of which are linked to one another holistically. These spaces were planned and programmed to promote and facilitate the interaction of artists and performers with each other, with casual observers and with audiences from the College and local community.”

“Where the architecture itself is the stage??!!” Warning: ego ahead!

There’s another way to describe the $26 million structure. 

It’s a building that could be anywhere, an angular assertive hulk that pays no attention to the surrounding neighborhood. It’s deliberately elevated above the 19th and early 20th century buildings nearby, not to mention the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.  If buildings have egos, the Cornerstone is the Chris Christie of Colorado Springs: overbearing, pretentious and insensitve. Like the Denver Art Museum, it already seems dated and slightly embarrassing, the product of a mercifully short-lived era of titanium-clad starchitect buildings.

If disco and big hair were a building…

Alas, it may be that Colorado Springs should brace itself for more of the same.

The design architect presentations are scheduled for mid-July, so let’s hope that the winner partners with a local firm.

That might lead to the creation of a truly iconic building — one that would be to starchitecture what the Beatles are to the Monkees. 

2 Responses to Museum organizers should be going all-local

  1. The concern has been from the start that the project would get farmed out to foreign corporations and contractors and now we know that is precisely what is going to happen. The net result is this project and our own city government is not putting these funds back into the community, not creating jobs in our community and is cheating the citizens of Colorado Springs. But the real crime is the citizens will sit back and let it happen.

    Steven Shepard
    June 24, 2014 at 11:45 am

  2. First Headline – Citizens should back C4C to help the local economy; Second Headline – C4C Museum Board hires Denver Architect
    Huh? This is so wrong.

    David Barber
    June 25, 2014 at 7:48 pm