While some may think of architecture as a purely aesthetic endeavor, the practice reflects issues of historical power and cultural identity. Students and professors from CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning are exhibiting their work in three installations at the History Colorado Center, each of which reexamines Denver architecture (through Sept. 6).
NOMAS on the Steps
Where Corners Meet confronts History Colorado visitors immediately—before they even enter the museum. Outside, on the sweeping front steps, members of CU Denver’s National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMAS) worked with Visiting Professor Annicia Streete and Assistant Professor Rick Sommerfeld to create a series of installations exploring how cultural institutions have historically welcomed—and blocked—certain communities.
Constructed of charred wood, metal frames, and black zip ties, the NOMAS presentation forces onlookers to navigate the structures. Photographs and text are placed below eye level, forcing visitors to stoop. Both the materials and their placement are purposeful. “In terms of my own history, wood and metal goes back to the Middle Passage,” Streete said. “The transatlantic voyage dealt with space in a very horrific manner. Slaves were packed in boats, packed on top of each other with no more than a three-foot space.”
Graduate student and NOMAS co-founder Xiomara Amaro said, “There’s no nice way to put it: Architecture is a weapon of oppression.” Luis Gutierrez, another student involved in the exhibit, put it simply: “Sometimes you don’t even think architecture relates to race and injustice, but it is very much connected to it.”
Before Professor Streete and her students got involved in Where Corners Meet, they were exploring a specific Denver neighborhood, Five Points, in a special studio class she taught combining intermediate and advanced graduate students. “The studio was primarily for NOMAS students,” Streete said. “We engaged in a study of Afrofuturism, which requires we look at events of the past and make projections for the future. What does it mean to imagine a Black future, to imagine liberation and freedom?”
Students were excited to participate in a class specifically for minoritized groups, the first such studio offered by the College of Architecture and Planning. “I am a Latina (she, her), and it’s really rare to see my face reflected in the professors around me,” Amaro said. “To enter a studio that isn’t just for BIPOC students but is also about a marginalized, historically segregated community in the city I grew up in was so powerful. In order for architecture to thrive, you need these diverse voices at the table.”
The collaboration benefitted History Colorado, which has a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Executive Director Steve W. Turner, AIA, wanted part of the CAP exhibition to “look at the critical, relevant issue of minority representation in cultural institutions.” The exhibit on the front steps of the building brought a new perspective. “The installation speaks to the impediments and challenges that minority communities have traditionally experienced when trying to encounter what has been a predominantly white institution like a history or art museum,” he said.
Five Points & Afrofuturism
Streete and her class have a second exhibit in the lobby of the History Colorado Center, which illustrates the NOMAS studio’s work on Five Points. “Five points on Five Points,” Streete said, explaining how the students organized their work in five stages: local history, precedent studies, site analysis, building collective, and reimagined future. “It was known as the Harlem of the West,” Streete said. “The Rossonian Hotel was the only buildings that would allow Black musicians to stay and play—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday.”
Amaro, a Denver native, wasn’t aware of the neighborhood’s history until she took Streete’s class. “We all have this narrative in our heads about what a community looks like,” she said. “She didn’t just change the narrative. She shared a deeper, more complex story about the Five Points community.”
Streete gave her students two locations in Five Points that they had to reimagine as community spaces—without tearing down any existing structures. “When we design, the approach is not just always to get rid of everything,” she said. “We can find innovative solutions to integrate what may be on the site already.”
They also had to design an artifact of no more than five inches cubed that distilled their building plans into a meaningful object. “It has to do with understanding what a building is about … taking away the technical parts to help the student understand its concept and not really the boundaries that it is being held inside of,” Gutierrez said. It’s interesting to note that many of the artifacts feature sharp angles and intersecting planes.
The Essence of Denver Architecture
Once visitors pass the lobby and enter the central light-filled atrium in the museum, they’ll find the third part of Where Corners Meet, a project by Assistant Professor Kevin Hirth and his students. Inside the structure, 100 architectural drawings by Hirth present his view of Denver architecture.
“The intention was to highlight the architectural vocabulary of Denver,” Turner of History Colorado explained. His favorite part of Hirth’s exhibit is the variety. “Some of the buildings are very utilitarian, some are very whimsical … What he managed to do was present a picture of present Denver architecture in a completely different light than I’d ever seen before.”
Besides well-known buildings by internationally recognized architects (Denver International Airport, Denver Public Library Central Branch), Hirth included factories, banks, and restaurants—some of which may not be immediately familiar to Denverites. Of these, Bastien’s Restaurant on Colfax (home of the “sugar steak”) is a building many Denverites have passed, perhaps without noticing its playful Googie style.
Where Corners Meet is a fruitful collaboration between History Colorado and the College of Architecture and Planning. The fact that the exhibit begins with race, moves on to Afrofuturism, and ends with Denver architecture is an interesting progression as it moves from past to future to present. “I was very appreciative that the students could show their work on this scale,” Streete said.
Turner also views the exhibit as a benefit for students, “who have an opportunity to display their work in front of a much larger audience than normal.” Additionally, he thinks the partnership has been helpful to History Colorado. “I feel like it has been really successful for both parties,” he said. “For History Colorado, it’s been extraordinarily beneficial because we’ve gotten a level of expertise we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.”