A Tour of Space(s) between Chicago and San Francisco

On DAY 3, August 26th, my final destination was Bartlesville, Oklahoma, but my first stop was Denver , Colorado , where I arrived around 12:30 pm. I had previously visited Denver in the summer of 1999 just before the board of trustees of the Denver Museum of Art decided to commission a “Capital A Architect” to put an addition onto their quirky, but loveable (evidently, only by few however) original 1971 building by Italian modernist Gio Ponti shown below.

Ponti’s only building in the United States–a distinction in itself–was the result of a lengthy search by the building committee, who as the story goes, had their hearts set on Swiss modernist Le Corbusier. He was too busy designing the new Capital of the Punjab, Chandigarh, for Jawaharlal Nehru so the board turned to their #2 choice, Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, who agreed to undertake the project, but died almost immediately thereafter. Ponti was presumably next on their shortlist.

The Democratic National Convention was occurring while I was visiting, and had loaded the streets with traffic, bomb inspection checkpoints, SWAT team members, the Colorado State Police, Sheriffs deputies, Denver Police, the Secret Service, and probably FBI and Homeland security officers as well.

Daniel Liebeskind won the commission for the museum addition, which opened in 2006.

The result is a hyper-aggressive, characteristically dynamic and attention-grabbing titanium-clad assemblage of tilted and askew geometric solids which purport to be “frozen” in space. In what is certainly one of the buildings most flamboyant gestures, the “prow” of the top floor gallery cantilevers far out over the street for no apparent reason other than that it can.

When seen from the exterior, these shapes appear engaging and alluring. On the inside they have produced galleries, that are only effective for the display of sculpture. There were more instances than one would care to recall in which an enormous canvas was either hung at an obtuse angle from the viewer, or suspended from the ceiling on cables with only the lowermost edge of the picture coplanar with the angled wall. By comparison, the New York Guggenheim’s curving walls, judged to have interfered with the display of paintings, seem like a disciplined exercise in rationalist thinking.

After driving 914 miles I reached Bartlesville and checked in to the boutique hotel that Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Price Tower has become.

I began DAY 4 of my odyssey, August 27, with a tour of the tower. Although it is hard to believe that more than one or two souls would be on hand for an 11am tour of the tower on a Wednesday in August, I was the last person admitted. Ten of us began our tour with a video presentation on the history of the tower and Mr. Price’s hiring of Frank Lloyd Wright as the designer. The building continues to be described as “the tree that escaped the crowded forest” although evidence of this statement would appear to be lacking. However, it is possible to imagine the tower as having been born from an acorn brought from Manhattan since the building was originally conceived in the nineteen-twenties for (an unbuilt, multi-tower project entitled) St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

Wright produced nearly identical designs for high rise buildings throughout his career with no success until finally building this one, late in life, for Mr. Price in Bartlesville . Though visually engaging, the building is a curiously organized mixed-use tower.  Instead of sorting its functions vertically with apartments on top of offices, and using a tapering building mass to put smaller residential uses atop larger commercial ones, Mr. Wright–never one to follow convention–organized the Price tower with duplex apartments sharing floors with smaller offices throughout the building. This has the curious–and frankly inexcusable–effect of creating the ultra-narrow low entrances (so typical of Wright) to double height apartments through which furniture was not able to be moved from the trapezoidal and tiny elevators. All furniture had to be either moved in to the apartments via crane through the exterior wall prior to occupancy, or custom built inside the unit. Forget about wheelchairs.

Functionally, the building is currently anchored by the Price tower arts center, which is dedicated to the history of the tower, and the custom interior design elements which came with it: chairs, carpets, light fixtures, windows, etc., as well as a series of travelling exhibits on different subjects. The center hired avant-garde British architect Zaha Hadid in 2002 to design an addition to the tower to provide a more expansive arts center. This admirably optimistic goal is displayed in model and video form within the exhibition area.

Leaving the tower, I headed north to Kansas City, arriving around 5:30 pm.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

    Loved this post. This is a trip I must take.

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