An Either Ore Situation

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

Nemchock insists that titanium's special attributes make it more cost-effective than many architects realize. He observes that materials are never the most expensive item in a construction project, and when total costs per square foot are factored, the extra expense of titanium isn't as much as people think. And then there's the durability factor.

"We gave the Guggenheim a warranty for 100 years on corrosion," says Nemchock. "People don't realize that stainless steel can rust. Life cycle is very important in architecture."

Timet met with a potential public-relations disaster in the summer of 2000, when the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a front-page story claiming that stains on the titanium skin were starting to make [the Guggenheim] look like "the rusting hull of an abandoned barge." The article went on to suggest that the titanium might be at fault.

A model of Daniel Libeskind's proposed addition to the Denver Art Museum.
A model of Daniel Libeskind's proposed addition to the Denver Art Museum.

This would have been a devastating blow for the reputation of the metal. However, the explanation for the stains wasn't nearly so sensational. Timet didn't deny that there were discolorations on the building; an estimated 20 percent of the titanium panels had become streaked with brownish stains. Officials at both Timet and the Guggenheim said the real culprit was a silicon-based fireproofing material that was improperly sprayed on the panels by an inexperienced contractor. To correct the problem, Timet developed a unique cleaning method that has already been used by the museum to clean some of the panels.

"It was horrible, because we had to defend ourselves, and we had done nothing wrong," says Nemchock.

The dust-up over the Bilbao hasn't changed many architects' esteem for titanium, but not everyone is convinced that it's a superior metal. Curt Fentress, the Denver architect who designed Denver International Airport and is now finishing the design of the expanded Colorado Convention Center, says he believes stainless steel can be just as effective.

To prove it, Fentress points to his firm's headquarters, at 421 Broadway. He has used the exterior to display several types of metal: Aluminum panels make up the base, while stainless-steel sheets are built onto a curving exterior wall near the top of the building. Fentress says these panels are similar in size to the ones Gehry used on the Guggenheim, and he believes they demonstrate stainless steel's attractiveness.

He considered using titanium but decided against it.

"It would have been $10,000 more to use titanium," he says. "I can't tell the difference."

Fentress says his firm thought about using titanium on the convention center, but budget factors ruled it out. Instead they'll use stainless steel. Huge windows will take up much of the convention center's exterior facing Speer Boulevard and 14th Street, and ribbons of perforated stainless steel will be used along the edges of the massive new center on Champa and Welton streets.

Fentress makes it clear that he thinks the buzz around titanium involves a certain amount of hype.

"Titanium is rare and unique, and the name has a nice ring to it," he acknowledges.

But titanium's supporters are convinced that the metal is extraordinary and the material of choice for world-class architecture. BlueSky's Simmons, for one, would like to see it used at the art museum.

"I hope they can choose titanium," he says. "Stainless steel has a cold feel to it and will reinforce the edgy, knifelike appearance of Libeskind's architecture. Titanium will soften the appearance."

Tryba designed the new City of Denver office building on Cleveland Place, on the northwest side of the Civic Center. That office tower -- which isn't finished but is already being praised as one of the sharpest new structures in town -- has an aluminum skin.

"We wanted to clad that building in titanium," says Tryba. "But it's much more expensive."

Tryba hopes the city offices will define the northern edge of the Civic Center and mirror the Denver Art Museum on the other side of the City and County Building. For that reason, he wanted the office tower to be the same color as the art museum, which was designed by the Italian architect Gio Ponti.

"Titanium's natural state is a gray that's almost the same color as the Ponti building," says Tryba. "We wanted it so that when you look from the State Capitol steps, there will be two buildings that complement each other and bracket the City and County Building."

Since he couldn't use titanium, Tryba elected to paint over the aluminum with a color that matches the silvery-gray glass tiles of the art museum. That paint color is actually called "titanium," even though it contains none of the metal.

There's no shortage of titanium in the world. It is the ninth-most abundant element in the earth's crust and is even more common in space. Meteorites have been found to contain significant amounts of titanium, and many rocks from the moon are as much as 6 percent titanium, considerably more than is usually found in earthbound rocks.

Titanium was discovered in 1790 by the Reverend William Gregor, an amateur geologist. While sifting through black magnetic sands on a beach near Falmouth, England, Gregor noticed a metallic substance he had never seen before. He named the substance Manaccanite, after the parish of Manaccan, where the sands were found.

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