Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mr. Governor, Tear Down These Walls

There is lots of conversation recently about the dire condition of the Colorado state capitol dome.  It is crumbling away as you read this.  Something must be done -- soon. However, more than just the dome is in bad shape.   This would be a good time to question the viability of the entire building.  

The Colorado state capitol building in Denver.

The golden dome is a familiar fixture in downtown Denver. It has been around longer than our oldest legislators.  With its prominent location and its august function, we tend to think of the building as something truly significant.  Take a closer look.  The state capitol building has never been good architecture.  Not only is it structurally vulnerable, it is esthetically and functionally inept.  Thus, it fails on all three legs upon which architecture should rest: commodity, firmness, and delight (in the words of Vitruvius).
A brassy interior.
Underneath: crumbing structure.

E.E. Myers designed the building in 1886.  The Illinois-based architect devised an ungainly Victorian pastiche of meaningless Greco-Roman details.  Mr. Myers specialized in the design of government buildings, none of them remarkable.  Other architects designed state capitols in the classical style with much greater effect.  Wisconsin’s, for example, has exterior gravitas and interior grandeur that far exceeds our state’s meager effort.  Some capitols have followed a more adventuresome path, as with Nebraska’s art deco departure from conventionality.   However, Colorado’s grey granite edifice has neither style nor panache.   Its labyrinthine interior looks like an explosion in a Corinthian column factory.  The drear halls are dead, except for unexpected reflections due to an excessive use of polished brass.  Offices are inadequate, with some legislators doubling up. Secretaries and clerks labor in miserly square footage. Over the years, the various rooms have become makeshift and make-do.  Whatever is meant by state of the art, this building’s heating, air conditioning, and lighting are the opposite of. 
Upper dome structure.
What could we accomplish by starting fresh?  The possibilities are thrilling to contemplate.   Perhaps we could have a design that retains parts of the lower structure (to commemorate the past) but replaces the existing dome and roof with a glass dome that allows visitors to peer into the chambers of government.  Architect Norman Foster did exactly that with his design for the new Reichstag in Berlin.  This triumph of architecture symbolizes the transparency of democracy.   Another approach might draw inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1957 proposal for a new Arizona state capitol.  His design was a hexagonal tracery of trellises and atriums intended as an oasis in the desert.  Colorado deserves a building as symbolic of our unique environment as Wright’s would have been for Arizona’s.  
Why do we assume something is good just because it is old?  Of course, we should recycle everything of intrinsic or historic value.  Reuse some of the stone.  Save the beautiful artwork.   Reinstall the existing paneling in a creative new way.   However, let’s admit this fussy old relic is simply not up to the task of serving a state whose population has increased 900 percent since it was built.  Let’s build something new and fresh and important.  One additional benefit of creating a new capitol:  we can get all the parking underground, where it belongs.  Currently, legislators’ vehicles encircle the capitol like wagons under siege.  This situation is one of the most unsightly pedestrian approaches to any capitol in the country. 
Rooftop of the renewed Reichstag in Berlin.
Of course, this radical idea inevitably faces a wall of economic reality.  Under current conditions, this proposal does not seem feasible or possible.  No doubt, most readers were raising financial objections after the first paragraph.  However, this is an idea to develop over several years, not right this moment.  Consider how a population of only 500,000 Coloradans was able to conceive and finance a structure that has served for over a century.  We would honor their can do spirit by creating a greater state capitol for the next one hundred years.  Perhaps for the next thousand.  Why should it be difficult for this generation to conceive of a truly great building that is a fiting symbol for this state?  We can buy some time with minimal stabilization of the dome and then consider a long-term solution.  
Our state capitol has outlived its usefulness.  Now we are presented with an opportunity to do better.    


Reichstag by Bjorn Laczay.
All others by Knorr.

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