An Either Ore Situation

Titanium, the king of metals, scraps for a home in Denver.

Lower downtown, where splashy multimillion-dollar lofts are common, isn't an easy place to impress people architecturally. One LoDo couple spent a small fortune importing sandstone from India for the exterior of their home, while a bachelor who moved into a LoDo penthouse reportedly covered his bedroom walls with mink.

Aware of the competition, Wynkoop Brewing Company owner and LoDo developer John Hickenlooper wanted to use a material that would stand out for his latest residential project. He sought an element that would catch the eye of even the most jaded urbanites, something that was futuristic but timeless.

He decided there was only one choice: titanium.

"We wanted it to be a building for the 21st century," Hickenlooper says. "Titanium has this incredibly beautiful luster. It lasts forever and doesn't oxidize."

Hickenlooper says he considered using brushed aluminum but thinks titanium is unique. "It costs twice as much, but it's worth it. Aluminum only lasts one-tenth as long. Titanium has incredible strength."

In a clear demonstration of his confidence in the metal, Hickenlooper has dubbed the new building at 1720 Wazee "The Titanium." That gesture should delight executives at the country's largest producer of titanium, Titanium Metals Corporation (Timet), which is based in Denver, not far from Hickenlooper's six-story structure.

For years, titanium has been the metal of choice in manufacturing jet engines and other aerospace parts. The metal -- named for the Titans, powerful Greek gods -- also has a high-tech sex appeal that's made it fashionable; Apple PowerBooks have a titanium casing, for example. The substance, as strong as steel but weighing half as much and impervious to rust, is being forged into wedding rings, knives, cars, camping equipment -- even chopsticks.

Yet the most spectacular new application for titanium has come in an unexpected place: architecture.

The 1997 debut of the Guggenheim Museum branch in Bilbao, Spain, made titanium an international superstar. The museum, designed by Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, was immediately hailed as a masterwork. Architect Philip Johnson called it "the greatest building of our time."

A swirl of organic forms that seem to spin and vault over the River Nervion, the museum's titanium exterior drew rave reviews for the way the metal reflects light, changing color as the sun and clouds shift during the day. Based upon the weather, titanium's natural gray color can take on blue or purplish tints and even be transformed into a shimmering gold as the sun sets. What's more, the thin titanium panels give the exterior a weightless, mysterious quality that leaves observers searching for words.

"Titanium has an ethereal quality that's difficult to describe," says Denver architect David Owen Tryba.

The Guggenheim turned the once-obscure city of Bilbao into a popular tourist destination. It has also found its way into pop culture, as a background setting for James Bond (albeit a Pierce Brosnan Bond) in The World Is Not Enough, and in a Mariah Carey music video.

Now Denver hopes to pull off something similar.

After the city's voters approved a $62.5 million bond issue in 1999 to build a 146,000-square-foot addition to the Denver Art Museum, the DAM board of directors held an international design competition that brought in entries from some of the biggest names in architecture. The winner was Daniel Libes-kind, a Berlin-based architect whose stunning design for the Jewish Museum in that city catapulted him into the architectural stratosphere almost overnight.

For Denver, Libeskind has designed a radical building that will be like no other in the city. To be erected on the parking lot at 13th Avenue and Acoma Street, the addition is centered on a glass atrium with diagonal sections that shoot off in different directions. It's been described as resembling a crystal: light-infused, but with hard surfaces that belie their own strength.

Libeskind and the museum's board of directors are considering three materials for the metal skin: aluminum, stainless steel and titanium. In the past, Libeskind has said he would prefer titanium, but the metal's higher cost may scare the museum away from choosing it.

Timet has a lot at stake in the final decision. The art museum is only a few blocks from the company's downtown headquarters, and having a major civic building encased in titanium would be a public-relations coup. Finding new uses for titanium has also become a necessity for the company, which was hit hard by the aftershocks of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the airline industry went down with them. As huge carriers like United and American faced financial disaster, orders for new commercial airliners disappeared. More than 80 percent of Timet's revenues come from the aerospace industry, and the company's stock price dropped 75 percent in the days after the attacks.

"Until the airlines get back to financial health, they won't be ordering new planes," says J. Landis Martin, CEO of Timet. "We think the industry won't come back until the end of 2003."

While titanium has its fans, it's still not clear if the metal can break out of the aerospace ghetto, where 60 percent of it is used. Titanium is now an established niche metal for specialized uses, but its boosters hope that one day it will be as commonplace as aluminum. They dream of a world in which titanium -- often described as the most noble of metals because of its strength and durability -- will be found on everything from toasters to Toyotas.

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