Building For the Future

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

The blond and tan bricks used at Regis echo the tawny prairie grasses that cover the hillside location. The design of the chapel makes subtle reference to classic European cathedrals. The detailing on the roof and sides of the building allude to Notre Dame's famous flying buttresses, while skylights on the side of the nave bring a flood of otherworldly light into the chapel and mark the central worship area as sacred space.

In Tradition Hall, which links the chapel and the school, displays of trophies and ribbons note the triumphs of Regis students over the years. A simple linoleum floor is patterned in a checkerboard of mauve and gray, reflecting the school's shield. The school library faces west and is enclosed with three stories of glass that bring inside a sweeping view of the Front Range.

After seeing this building, it's not surprising to hear Tryba use a vocabulary of regeneration to describe his architectural mission.

"What we need to do is heal our built environment and provide buildings that nurture people," says Tryba. "What we've lost as a profession is our ability to see and our ability to create nurturing buildings."

Tryba's own history has shaped his approach to architecture. The 43-year-old Colorado Springs native grew up near Colorado College, in a stately old neighborhood that was laid out a century ago by the city's founders. Once known as the state's loveliest city because of its carefully planned network of grand boulevards and civic monuments, Colorado Springs has been scarred by helter-skelter development during the past thirty years. Watching his hometown's degradation has been a sad but informative experience for Tryba.

"The planning that was done in the Springs in the later part of the nineteenth century played a role in my understanding of public space," says Tryba. "There were boulevards and parkways and vistas and monuments. Now it's been destroyed."

Tryba remembers growing up in a neighborhood where children from all classes played together in the local parks. His own interest in architecture began to grow in his teenage years.

"When I was in high school, I was taking drawing classes," he recalls. "It was fun and the first thing I'd ever done that was easy for me to excel at."

As an undergraduate, he studied design at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he took an interest in environmentally friendly construction. After graduation he backpacked around Europe before returning to Colorado and CU-Denver's graduate architecture program. He finished that program in 1980, right in the midst of the oil-driven high-rise boom, and immediately went to work for the Denver-based Gensler & Associates.

But the devastating oil-industry bust of the mid-1980s was just around the corner, and not a single building Tryba worked on at Gensler was ever built. As the local economy imploded, Tryba realized he would have to leave Colorado.

"I was thinking, 'I'm going nowhere as fast as I can,'" he remembers. "So I moved to New York City. It was fortuitous. I think there was an angel sitting on my shoulder."

In New York, where he, worked until 1988, he signed on with Beyer, Blinder, Belle. That firm is now famous for its renovations of Ellis Island and the Grand Central Terminal, and Tryba says he was plunged into an architectural milieu that was radically different from his previous experience.

"I had no love affair with historic buildings or urban design at that time," says Tryba. "I thought the purpose of architecture was to build things taller and sleeker. I was then humbled to experience an entire firm of architects that had all their egos in check."

James Fitch, one of the guiding lights at Beyer, Blinder, Belle, remembers Tryba as a brilliant designer who was quick to understand the firm's dislike of grandstanding.

"That's what some young architects find difficult to accept," says Fitch. "When doing historic renovations, you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the original architect. Invention is at a minimum."

The New York firm emphasized listening carefully to clients and trying to understand how a building would fit into a neighborhood. "I learned a different way of thinking about things," says Tryba. "I got an opportunity to design several mixed-use projects. I also became excited about working inside cities."

While today Tryba's heart is in downtown Denver--he estimates 75 percent of his firm's work is within walking distance of his office--he's now working on a large project that will transform the ultimate suburban monstrosity: the former Cinderella City Mall in Englewood.

The onetime shopping monolith is now being demolished, and Tryba has been given the task of converting the site into a civic and commercial center that will open up to a light-rail station now under construction. Much is riding on the project, which Englewood officials hope will trigger a renaissance for the aging suburb.

Originally, Englewood officials proposed replacing the mall with yet another "big box" collection of retail superstores. But after residents revolted, they scurried back to the drawing board and turned to celebrated planner Peter Calthorpe to help them design something better. Tryba has worked closely with Calthorpe on the project; both men are advocates of "new urbanism," the planning movement that calls for a return to pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods served by mass-transit lines.

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