An Either Ore Situation

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

There is something about titanium that brings poetry to the sterile world of engineering, a mystical quality that befits a metal named after mythological gods who were ultimately overthrown and banished to the underworld.

"Titanium," says Tryba, "is the king of all materials."

Frank Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Frank Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Dr. Ralph Cotton touts the use of titanium in surgical procedures.
Anthony Camera
Dr. Ralph Cotton touts the use of titanium in surgical procedures.

The Denver Art Museum is banking on its new addition to achieve several goals. One is to simply have more exhibition space so the museum can showcase its own collection (much of which is now kept in storage) and host more visiting shows. Any expansion could have achieved that end, but the museum has chosen to do something far more ambitious.

"We wanted to build a building that would be an art statement," says Vicki Aybar-Sterling, the DAM's assistant director.

By hiring Libeskind, one of the most daring architects on the world stage, the museum is clearly hoping to make a splash in the art world and elevate its reputation. A new structure often draws the attention of collectors, who are more likely to donate their art to a museum with the space to show it. And the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao has shown that thousands of tourists will come just to see cutting-edge architecture.

"What we've seen from Bilbao is that when you build a building like this, it draws people," says Aybar-Sterling. "We expect our attendance will go up and this will be good for cultural tourism."

The DAM's addition has already brought in over $50 million in contributions; it has also helped attract donations of important collections of Western and contemporary art.

Libeskind's reputation was made in 1999, when his zinc-clad Jewish Museum opened in Berlin. The museum -- which is built in a zigzag configuration like a broken-up Star of David -- has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. Thousands lined up to tour it before it even held exhibitions. It was this architectural work that persuaded Denver officials to hire Libeskind for the DAM expansion.

Whether Denver will be able to use titanium on the museum addition is far from clear, however. In the next few months, the board will have to decide on what material to use. Hickenlooper serves on the museum's board of directors. He says most of the board would probably prefer to use titanium, but he fears budget concerns may make that impossible.

"The budget is so tight on the museum -- unless we can match the price for stainless steel, we may not be able to use it," says Hickenlooper. "They are relentlessly hammering that budget. Titanium might be as much as a million dollars more."

Martin also serves on the museum's board, and he says Timet would love to have titanium on permanent display.

"Denver is our world headquarters, and we'd like to have a building a few blocks away to show off our product," he says.

The company will offer the art museum a discount on titanium, but Martin says that price break may not be enough to bring the cost in line with other metals. "Certainly we'll be making [price] concessions. I just don't know if it will be enough to make up the difference."

Budgets are invariably titanium's worst enemy. But many architects love the material and are thrilled when they get a chance to use it.

Joe Simmons of BlueSky Studio designed Hickenlooper's new project on Wazee Street. He says he was delighted to have a client willing to pick up the extra cost for titanium.

"Titanium has a much warmer color and feel than stainless steel," he says. "It changes color in the light and picks up reflections in a different way than other metals do. It can go from red to blue and all the colors in between."

Simmons says he probably would have used aluminum on the building if he couldn't have used titanium. He notes that aluminum will change color or rust unless it is anodized, an electrochemical process that puts a protective film over the metal.

"If you don't do that, it will oxidize into a dull gray," Simmons explains. "Aluminum is a very reactive metal, where titanium is not reactive at all. Titanium oxidizes instantly in the mill and forms a protective coating. Aluminum is subject to corrosion, but titanium doesn't corrode."

Titanium's imperviousness to the elements is part of its mystique. Its ability to resist water, freezing and extreme heat -- it can withstand temperatures up to 800 degrees -- is one of the reasons it became the metal of choice for aerospace.

Gary Nemchock, Timet's architecture specialist, describes the Guggenheim as "an icon for titanium. Architects are putting titanium in their palette. It's not just for Frank Gehry anymore."

Timet supplied the titanium that was used in Bilbao. The museum considered using stainless steel but was able to afford titanium largely by being in the right place at the right time: In 1995, producers in the former Soviet Union flooded the world market with titanium, and the price dropped to record lows.

Since then, the price has fluctuated with demand, most recently dropping in the wake of September 11. Titanium alloys suitable for the aerospace industry are now selling for about $6 per pound, a drop of nearly $2 from the period before September 11. (For architectural grades, prices have been more stable, staying at about $5 per square foot for the past several years. Stainless steel goes for about $3 per square foot.)

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