Building For the Future

David Owen Tryba has designs on Denver--and looks to its past for inspiration.

"Of course we can do it," says Tryba. "Whether or not we will is another question."

For a moment Tryba gazes out the window of his office, looking at the hodgepodge of high-rises and brick buildings that make up downtown Denver. His furrows his brow, and the question in his mind is clear: Can this city be saved?

Tryba is surrounded by construction all day long as crews work on restoring the 1896 Fisher Mansion at 1600 Logan Street that Tryba bought in 1997 for $725,000. He's already moved his firm there and is now converting the rest of the mansion into a home for his family.

Living in a part of north Capitol Hill that's still in transition, Tryba has been struck by the wealth of classical architecture within just a few blocks. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. John's Episcopal Cathedral are nearby, and Tryba has counted dozens of architecturally important buildings in the blocks that radiate off East Colfax.

"You'd have to go to Washington, D.C., to see a better collection of civic buildings than we have around the State Capitol," says Tryba. "It's just incredible."

Tryba uses his new neighborhood to illustrate how different generations of architects have approached their task.

Designers once made it a priority to be good neighbors, he explains, creating buildings that were meant to fit in with their surroundings. If someone put up a new house next to a sandstone mansion, they'd be sure to include design elements that matched their neighbor. Tryba believes that sense of architectural community was lost by the middle of this century, as architects and their clients became driven by ego, trying to make every new building shout, "Look at me."

"What we've lost is the fundamental thing that builds a neighborhood, which is understanding the proportions," says Tryba. "You have to have a pair of eyes. It doesn't preclude modernism or the avant-garde. It's about understanding the rhythm and proportion of the street."

The best example of this lost design sense is in LoDo, says Tryba. Because there was hardly any new construction in LoDo in the years after WWII, the buildings in that part of Denver still reflect a turn-of-the-century ethos in which architects aimed to make their buildings jibe with whatever happened to be next door.

"Lower downtown is probably the largest number of buildings we have in Denver that are more or less contiguous," notes Tryba.

Even though LoDo contains buildings of different shapes and sizes, the area still reflects a community aesthetic. The common building materials are burnt-orange brick and stone, and building motifs such as arches, patterned brick and capstones are continued from one structure to another. This gives LoDo a stylistic coherence that's unusual in Denver.

While Tryba has probably done more LoDo renovation than any other Denver architect, he is now working on an office and residential building that will be his most prominent downtown project yet. The 16 Market Square building will break ground in a few weeks on the parking lot at the corner of 16th and Market streets.

Tryba was called in by the developer, Mark Falcone, to help redesign the project after the initial architects, Hartman-Cox of Washington, D.C., ran into trouble with LoDo's powerful Design Demolition Review Board, which must approve all new construction in the twelve-year-old historic district. The board felt that Hartman-Cox's building looked too much like a D.C. office building, and Tryba worked to reorient the project to fit in with the rest of LoDo.

With Tryba's input, the facade of the building was broken up so that it will almost look like two separate buildings. The eight-story structure also steps back on the top floors, reducing the impact on the street. The massing and patterns in the facade are similar to those of the neighboring Sugar Building at 16th and Wazee, which Tryba calls the best building in LoDo.

"David had a significant impact on 16 Market Square," says John Anderson, chairman of the design review board. "The building now has an indentation at the alley and a passageway up the alley. One part of it also steps down from the other."

Anderson says Tryba understands that among the distinguishing features of LoDo are the jagged rooflines and the way even large buildings have human-scale facades that appeal to pedestrians.

"When out-of-town architects come in here and we've beat them up about their inability to understand LoDo, we're not surprised to see them come to the second meeting with David on their team," says Anderson, a veteran Denver architect. "I think he's done the best work of any of the architects working in LoDo."

Despite his passion for historic preservation, Tryba has not simply copied nineteenth-century styles. Many of his buildings are deeply modern but still reflect a concern with context and historical precedent.

His most significant new building is Regis Jesuit High School in Arapahoe County, a project incorporating a traditional high school and a three-story chapel. The materials used are the stuff of high schools everywhere: brick, linoleum tile, concrete. But in Tryba's hands, those common materials come together to create a spiritual community in an otherwise bland suburban setting.

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