In the Wild West days when Denver was settled, fiddles and banjos were tucked into the covered wagons along with the pistols and pickaxes.
Today, this city of booming, skyscraping corporation headquarters has yet to catch up with its culture.
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, at any rate, is as yet architecturally and geographically somewhat apart from downtown Denver's brash and raw energy. That is not the fault of the center but of poor city planning.
The center was launched eight years ago by the dream and drive of Ronald R. Seawell, chairman of The Denver Post, with the support of the Helen G. and Frederick Bonfils Foundation and the city. Seawell's ambition was to provide Denver and the Rocky Mountain area with a theater complex, a permanent resident acting company and a concert hall second to none. What with mounting costs and inflation, the going was rough. But Seawell made it, and by the choice of his architects, he made it an act of faith in the architecture of our time.
The main elements of the center are now in place and operating. Under a masterplan by architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, the theater by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, the concert hall by Roche and an elegant parking garage are connected to Denver's turn-of-the-century City Auditorium by a dramatic, soaring glass vault. Another glass archway with shops and cafes is still to come. The eight-story-high glass vaults form a Galleria that ties the complex into one architectural unit.
Roche, who with John Dinkeloo designed the Ford Foundation headquarters and the additions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, who designed the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and the restoration and addition of the Willard Hotel on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, are as daringly modern as architects come. Both the complex as a whole, and the new auditoriums of which it consists, break with the traditional cultural temple, a la Kennedy Center, or temple city, a la Lincoln Center. The idea was to avoid the air of formality and "stuffiness," as the planners put it, that might scare customers away.
This is daring and exciting but less than rousing.
Although the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers are, of course, middle-brow architecture, it seems to me necessary to have some connection with 2,000 years of Western culture, some association with the conscious or subconscious image of a temple for the muses. A church ought to look like a church if it is to be respected as a church. An arts center ought to look like an arts center if we are to be emotionally comfortable with it.
Roche could easily have provided this emotional association by giving prominence to the pompous but dear old Civic Auditorium. It is a work of less-than-inspired Beaux Arts architecture. But in a city that has bulldozed most of its past in the name of urban renewal, it is a reassuring relic.
Instead, Roche hung one side of his Piranesian glass vault on the old auditorium facade, which is great for the new Galleria but too bad for the old auditorium.
On the other side, the glass vault is supported by the parking garage, which obviously does not add to the sense of cultural purpose and dignity of the place. Roche's architectural theatrics are a bit empty.
His Bonfils Theater, however, is a wonderful play machine.
It consists of a thrust stage theater of 642 seats called "The Stage," an experimental theater of 450 seats called the "The Space," an intimate rehearsal/performance space of 180 seats, a cinema of 260 seats and a screening room of 25 seats. There seems no limit to what an imaginative director can do with all this -- plugging things in and out, raising and lowering stages, adding and subtracting seats, allowing actors to enter and exit just about anywhere. If I am correctly informed, this is the most versatile theater in the world, reminiscent of Walter Gropius' project for Gesamttheater, or "total theater."
Kevin Roche is a romantic Mies van der Rohe. This building, with its curved wall and odd angles, steeply slanted hothouse roof and wrap-around glass canopy, is hopelessly romantic, sheer Expressionism. And yet the polished metals, the handrails and abundant mirrors and other details are presented with Miesian simplicity and finished with Miesian precision.
I found Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer's concert hall equally intriguing.
It is called Boettcher Concert Hall, seats 2,700 on five different levels and was designed with acoustics foremost in mind. It is one of those 360-degree surround concert halls, where the performers are in the middle, and was inspired by Hans Scharoun's Philharmonic Hall in Berlin.
But while Scharoun's somewhat mystical building, completed in 1963, is confusing with all its protrusions, corners, angles, balconies, portholes and turrets tucked under an undulating roof, Hardy and company kept this hall mercifully simple. The decor has a candy-colored, art deco flavor and the lobbies have overstated and polychromatic plumbing HHP made fasionable in this country. All of which is a bit cute, a bit much. But then we are in the brash and brazen West and why not?
The 1920s' cafe house style is not offensive. Compared to the concert hall in Minneapolis, by the same architects, it is positively restrained.
The inside of this center is probably as good and certainly as interesting a new setting for the performing arts as you can find anywhere.
Artistically, the center has collected nothing but rave reviews for its vitality, variety and quality. The new theater provided a fare ranging from Euripides' "Medea" to Dylan Thomas and from Shakespeare to "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Next season promises to be equally eclectic and educational. "The fantastic part of it," says Seawell, "is that there will be five plays running in rep at the same time. I do not believe any theater company in America will be meeting such a challenge, nor do I believe that any other theater complex in America was designed to accommodate such a challenge."
The challenge for the city is to live up to the center, as it were -- to redevelope the area around it, so the center is physically incorporated into the business district.
The center was built on a four square block, urban renewal site on the drab edge of downtown. It will be a while until the upward thrust of Denver's slick and mirrored office towers spreads out enough to include this place. "Old Denver," which is called "Larimer Square" and consists of a rather precious, one-block street of Victorian warehouses turned into restaurants and boutiques, is close, but not close enough to share some daytime crowds with the Art Center.
The best hope to make it also a daytime attraction and make the cultural presence felt and radiate, is the Denver Mall, now under construction.
It will not be the usual pedestrian shopping mall, but downtown Denver's 14-block-long public transpotation spine. Designed by the ubiquitous I.M. Pei, it stretch of 16th Street will be closed to private automobiles, but move people on quiet and pollution-free buses which, at peak hours, will run only 70 seconds apart.
Widened sidewalks, benches, fountains, new shade trees, planters and such will make walking pleasant. It will allow parallel streets to move through-traffic faster. The Mall is to be completed at the end of next year and promises to bring more people downtown. Ways must be found to attract them also to the Performing Arts Center which is only three blocks away.
Only people, street artists, vendors, shops and the kind of animation that makes the Beaubourg arts center in Paris so vibrant can enhance Denver's cultural life during the day as well as at night.