When the City for Champions project first was announced more than a year ago, the proposed U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame was front and center. Headed by the formidable Dick Celeste, it seemed obvious the museum would have the largest impact of any of the four projects.
Celeste envisioned an “iconic” structure that would re-energize the dreary junkscape of southwest downtown and firmly establish the city’s brand as America’s Olympic City.
During a media event Monday introducing the building’s design team, Celeste responded bluntly to a simple question: Why locate the museum here?
“If a facility of the quality that we’re proposing here were located elsewhere,” he said, “it would be hard to keep the rest of the Olympic presence here.”
In choosing Diller Scofidio + Renfro as design architect, Celeste made it clear he’s hoping for a home run. In a press release, DS+R Lead Designer Liz Diller said, “The challenge for the architecture will be to embody the elegance of form, dynamism, and strength so characteristic of the athlete, and the appearance of effortlessness and without an ounce of fat.”
In a subsequent conversation, Diller focused on the mountains.
“We’ve done projects in Los Angeles,” she said, “and it’s as if there weren’t any mountains there. But here…!”
Asked whether she had any preliminary ideas to share, or a back-of-the-envelope sketch like Daniel Libeskind’s famous early rendition of the Denver Art Museum, Diller gave a noncommittal smile.
“I think we’ll have something fairly soon,” she said.
Early next year?
“I hope so,” she replied.
DS+R likes to pretend it’s not just another architectural firm, labeling itself “an interdisciplinary design studio that integrates architecture, the performing arts and the visual arts.” Based in New York City, DS+R employs 115 architects and other professionals.
The firm has created some extraordinary things, some of which can scarcely be called buildings.
The Blur Building was a temporary “media pavilion” created for Swiss EXPO 2002 at the base of Lake Neuchatel in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland.
From piles in the water, a tensegrity system of rectilinear struts and diagonal rods cantilevered out over the lake. Ramps and walkways wove through the structure, loosely based on the work of Buckminster Fuller.
The “pavilion” was made of water, shot as a fine mist through 13,000 fog nozzles, creating a cloud that measured 300 feet wide by 200 feet deep by 65 feet high. Sophisticated sensors monitored fog output, responding to changes in temperature, humidity, wind direction and wind speed.
There was no “there” there — just fog. Visitors wandered randomly through the mist, eventually emerging into the sunlight above the fogbank.
Such work was rewarded with a MacArthur “genius” award, presented to Diller and Scofidio for “creating an alternative form of architectural practice that unites design, performance, and electronic media with cultural and architectural theory and criticism.”
And they’re not just blowing smoke (or water vapor). Current projects include the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other prosaically permanent buildings.
In 1978, the Norman Pfeiffer-designed Boettcher Concert Hall opened in Denver. It was the first symphony hall in the round in the United States, and was widely acclaimed for its innovative design and spectacular interior.
But there were problems. The sleek, modernist seats were cramped and uncomfortable, and the hall’s acoustics were terrible. The building had been acoustically tuned to a full house, but the 2,500-seat facility was rarely full. Periodic efforts to retune the hall met with mixed results. Built to accommodate a full symphony orchestra, Boettcher was not well-suited for smaller ensembles. The Denver Symphony went broke and was replaced by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which has also struggled.
The city and the symphony quarreled. Denver wanted more rent; CSO wanted to pay less. Fed up with all the problems, the city went with the nuclear option, suggesting that Boettcher be torn down and replaced with an outdoor amphitheater.
Boettcher still stands, but its days may be numbered. It’s an orphan venue, despised by users and owner alike. It’s a sad fate for a building that was meant to strengthen and ignite the Denver performing arts community.
In Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak Center opened in 1982. Built for less than $15 million, designed by local architect Jim Wallace, and built by local contractor GE Johnson, it was (and is) an unpretentious, superbly functional building.
As in Denver, the city’s symphony orchestra was the principal tenant. The symphony, the architect and the builder partnered with legendary acoustician Russell Johnson to create a hall that is flexible, adaptable and acoustically superb.
Today, the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts (as it is now known) hosts 200 performances annually. It’s nominally owned by El Paso County, but neither receives nor requires any government subsidy.
Replacing it today would cost well over $50 million, but why? It was perfect in 1982, and it has aged well.
Then and now
“We expect to be open in the fall of 2017,” Celeste said of the Olympic Museum, “and absolutely before the beginning of the Winter Games [in February 2018].”
The museum is expected to cost around $70 million, including a “modest endowment.” If DS+R’s past commissions are any guide, the building will indeed be iconic. But as Boettcher proves, iconic doesn’t necessarily mean functional, welcoming or enduring.
Yet among all of DS+R’s projects, one seems to prove that the firm can create an extraordinary and enduring environment out of almost nothing.
Manhattan’s High Line Park was once an abandoned 1.5-mile section of elevated railroad. During the last decade it has been transformed by Diller Scofidio and other partners into a linear park, a favorite destination for visitors and residents alike.
In a piece for Metropolis earlier this month, Anthony Palette described the High Line experience.
“The promise of any urban railroad, however dark or congested its start, is the eventual release onto the open frontier,” Palette wrote, “the prospect that those buried tracks could, in time, take you anywhere. For those of us whose only timetable is our walking pace, this is the experience of the newly opened, final phase of the High Line. The park, after snaking in its two initial stages through some 20 dense blocks of Manhattan, widens into a broad promenade that terminates in an epic vista of the Hudson. It’s a grand coda and a satisfying finish to one of the most ambitious park designs in recent memory.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Now let’s see what Liz Diller can do with a site next to the Pikes Peak Center, Gil Johnson’s son Jim as her general contractor, and all the grandees of the USOC peering at them from 30 S. Tejon.
And we’re excited too — every breath you take, every move you make … we’ll be watching you.