Denver's Art Museum with Runways

March 07, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

DENVER — Denver. -- It's tough to recall any American airport that's encountered political turbulence and predictions of fiscal crash landings akin to those swirling around the oft-delayed Denver International Airport, now scheduled to debut in May.

The airport, say critics, is unnecessary (the existing Stapleton Airport can handle today's traffic loads), monstrously expensive ($3.1 billion), fiscally perilous (its bonds hover two notches over junk-grade), and too expensive to get to ($35 for the 24-mile cab ride from downtown Denver).

The project is called ''Federico's Folly'' after ex-Mayor and now U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, the man who launched the project back in the '80s.

There's room to criticize. Surely the Denver city fathers deserve a rap for failing even to start a connecting rail line from downtown Denver, in a region that's had notorious ''brown cloud'' pollution problems.

At a time when airport-rail connections are fast becoming the international standard, Denverites blame their fragmented local political structure for the failure to provide rail. Constructing a 10-mile spur onto existing lines could have created an instant and fairly economical link with downtown Union Station and Stapleton Airport, which already has plenty of parking lots and hotels.

Even so, give Denver its due. The city has built an airport of rare architectural elegance, exquisitely matched to its surroundings, and filled with art reflecting western life, travel, light and space. This could turn out to be one of the important public buildings of our era. It stands in stark contrast to the boring design and sense of placelessness that afflict most American airports.

I recall a helicopter flight over the site a few years ago, wondering if a self-respecting jackrabbit would want to make this barren, treeless territory its home. But set on the high plains, with its elevation even higher than Denver, Denver International has one incredible asset: a stunning view of the high Rockies.

Architect Curtis Fentress designed a 126-foot-high roof of white fiberglass, multi-peaked like circus tents (or mountain peaks), translucent so that light pours through. Inside are soaring windows with views westward to the peaks. You know you are in Colorado. Mayor Wellington Webb promises a buffalo herd outside those windows soon.

Under Denver's policy of allocating 1 percent of the cost of public buildings for art works, $7.5 million of art was commissioned, reportedly the most money ever spent on a single, site-specific art project in America. Denver Post art critic Steven Rosen jocularly calls the airport ''an art museum with runways.''

The road into the airport has a 1,600-foot line of ancient tractors, plows, seeders, choppers and threshers, plus two huge piles of hay-baling rope and wire -- the way Buster Simpson, a specialist in landscape-related art, evokes the life and artifacts of farmers who once tilled these lands. Promised for later is ''Mustang'' -- a ,, 30-foot high gleaming blue fiberglass horse, by New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez, to greet passengers arriving on (what else?) Pena Boulevard.

Inside the terminal, metal sculptures, mimicking paper airplanes, hang from ceilings and point passengers to their destinations. Artists Darrell Anderson and Barbara McKee have created 20 mosaic images, each 8 feet square with over 9,000 tiles, depicting such Colorado travelers as a cowboy, a Spanish dancer and a flight attendant.

There is copious attention to detail: several walls, for example, that use differing tones of red sandstone to mirror the Continental Divide.

Underground, in the tubes for the trains carrying passengers to concourses, artist Leni Schwendinger has created a mile-long piece, ''Deep Time/Deep Space,'' using steel cutouts, construction signs and reflective tape to create four ''zones'' -- a construction zone, a mine, a night sky and a dream zone.

The airport's art plan is based largely on a 1990 report to the city, ''Art Journey,'' by a 13-artist team. The thrust was to get art that's part of the fabric of the design, rather than paintings under glass.

Public art in transportation facilities will be thriving soon. The art budget for Los Angeles' 300-mile mass-transit system is $10 million, for Boston's Central Artery Tunnel $17 million-plus, for San Francisco Airport improvements $10 million, for Miami's airport expansion $15 million or more.

But Denver is clearly a step ahead. And airport manager Jim DeLong promises that a majority of the 120 shops will be locally owned, many specifically representing Colorado and the Rocky Mountain area. At last we may have relief from nationally controlled airport concessions, as monotonous as they are overpriced.

It may or may not have been a good idea to build Denver International, for the price it's costing, in a period of stagnant air-travel demand. But now Denver has an airport worthy of the century to come. And finally we have proof that Americans can build airports that reflect some of the best -- and not just the most banal -- of our culture.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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