The building has an assurance and a quietude that could only have come from an architect comfortable in his renown, but not yet anxious about changing times or tastes.
Postmodernist architecture has its allies, and it has its enemies. But it has very few casual friends.
That the style (or intellectual affinity, or visual tick, or whatever one prefers to call the predominant mode of architectural production in the last two decades of the 20th century) proved so polarising is not altogether surprising. It did, after all, fly wilfully in the unsmiling face of postwar design orthodoxy, provoking outrage and occasionally disgust with its jokey, historicist forms and motley facades. On the other hand, wasn’t all that pop and pizazz aimed at courting mass appeal? Why so much contempt for an architectural movement that just wanted to be liked?
It didn’t even need to be liked that much. As conceived by its prime theorists, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, one of postmodernism’s chief objectives was to be “almost alright”. “Ordinary is better than Heroic and Original,” the couple wrote; a building, they reasoned, could be outstanding simply by not standing out.
For anyone who wonders what a such an “almost alright” building might look like—or anyone just interested in tempering their own feelings about postmodernism— there’s one project so superlatively good-enough as to achieve a kind of sublimity of anonymity. Completed in 1994, Michael Graves’ Denver Central Library is not the architect’s finest work – that distinction probably belongs to the Humana Building (1985), a more exciting and more original design by far. Nor is it his most famous; almost nothing in his oeuvre matches the celebrity of 1982’s Portland Building, flawed as that project was.
But what the Denver commission has that the others do not is an assurance and a quietude that could only have come from an architect past his enfant-terrible phase, comfortable in his renown but not yet anxious about changing times or tastes. It is a building that belongs to its city as a tree belongs to its forest, and it seems to have greeted the passage of the years and the changing streetscape around it with the same air of beneficent equanimity.
The public library sits at the corner of 13th Avenue and Broadway, on the south side of Colorado’s capitol mall. Today, the area around it is a bustling, highly developed commercial and administrative corridor but at the time Graves’ office won the commission (beating a bid from Robert AM Stern) the neighbourhood was “a little rough”, according to Brian Klipp, the local architect with whom the New Jersey-based Graves partnered on the design.
“Denver was searching for an identity,” Klipp says. The one-time gold-rush town was known for its altitude and its omelettes, but little else. In the absence of a distinctive urban image, or any urban context in the vicinity to speak of, Graves, Klipp and their collaborators decided to make both ex novo.
Much of the design’s understated charm is a result of its ingenious massing. As evident when seen in the round, the building is composed of several discrete volumes, each unique in shape and clad in a unique shade of washed-out, pastel-hued masonry. Graves was a compositional obsessive, known occasionally to enter friends’ homes and begin rearranging the display objects on their shelves. Here he achieves a masterwork of vignette, clustering the building’s disparate components (green pencil-like campanile, blue cylindrical tower, beige portico, red high-hatted drum) into a cosy, familial group.
Add to that the preservation of an older library facility next door – effectively deputised as another piece in the new puzzle – and you have a building that appears to be almost not a building at all, but a city unto itself.
It is in fact a single structure, and rather a monumental one. Historical enthusiasts, and especially the plan fans among them, will thrill to behold an interior scheme in the grand 19th-century tradition, with a highly unified, highly rational layout behind the unconventional facade.
But there’s a secret mission embedded in the plan’s most important organisational feature. Running the length of the ground floor from east to west, the Great Hall is a triple-height atrium that connects all the primary public spaces below the closed stacks and reading rooms on the upper storeys. It is also a flagrant violation of the client’s starting brief, which specified that there be one and one only entrance to the building. At the risk of losing the invited competition, Graves gave his building doors at both ends, letting on to Broadway on one side and a landscaped greenway on the other. As a result, the hall operates not just as an integral part of the library but as an extension of the street—an indoor pedestrian thoroughfare. Once again, the building seems determined to get out of its own way.
There are plenty of overt crowd-pleasing gestures on the inside, which boasts an unusual (for Graves) array of spatial configurations and material treatments, from a tent-like children’s reading room complete with striped canopy ceiling to assorted nooks and niches equipped with Graves-designed chairs, tables and desk lamps. But all the things the building does aren’t half as impressive as what it simply is. The critic Charles Jencks, a sometime Graves ally, once wrote of the architect that he “synthesised the insights” of Venturi and Scott Brown with those of Aldo Rossi and Leon Krier, tempering the populism of the Philadelphian duo with the Italian’s soft-spoken lyricism and the Luxembourger’s strident humanism.
If Graves is indeed a point of intersection on the postmodernist matrix, the Denver project might be at the very centre of the Gravesian matrix, exhibiting all of its creator’s impulses and influences, yet holding them all at bay. The building is nostalgic without giving into historicism, accessible without pandering to its public. Rather than deploying some cheeky self-deprecating gesture, the library achieves its almost-alright-ness by deflecting analysis altogether, stubbornly refusing to be pinned down.
Its success in this regard can be measured by how remarkably well the building holds up, nearly 30 years after its completion and in a wildly different Denver. The Civic Center has become the city’s cultural acropolis, with the library now sitting cheek-by-jowl with some very unusual neighbours: Brad Cloepfil’s Clyfford Still Museum, Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, and the History Colorado Center by David Tryba.
To say that these are not necessarily the kinds of buildings of which Michael Graves himself was likely to approve is putting it mildly; and yet the Denver Central Library exudes a forbearance which seems to take everything in its stride, looking patiently on while largely minding its own business. Its tolerance and its modesty are qualities rare in a building of any stripe, and ones that fiery partisans for and against postmodernism (or of any kind of architecture for that matter) might consider.