Denver made international architecture news last week when Spanish-born Santiago Calatrava came to town to unveil his designs for the expansion of Denver International Airport. An engineer and an architect, Calatrava gained fame — and respect — with his designs of bridges, transportation stations and buildings. There was so much public interest in Calatrava's lecture, which took place the night before the unveiling in the Denver Art Museum's Sharp Auditorium, that attendance was far beyond the Sharp's capacity, and hundreds of people were turned away at the door.
Calatrava's ideas for Denver are spectacular. They include a proposal for an RTD light-rail bridge that would traverse Peña Boulevard southwest of the airport, and conceptual designs for a light-rail station at the airport proper. He's also consulted on the design for a planned hotel and convention center next to the station with architects of record Gensler, an international outfit with a Denver office. And he's come up with a sky plaza that intelligently links the new buildings to the iconic Jeppesen Terminal, the tent-roofed building designed by the Denver firm of Fentress Bradburn Architects. The terminal, built in 1995, represents the greatest accomplishment of Curt Fentress. (As a personal aside, my first column for Westword was about the public art at DIA.)
Before getting into the details, however, I'd like to address the notion that the estimated $650 million price tag for Calatrava's work is insurmountable, as some have suggested. The problem with this line of thinking is that the equation people are using leaves out an important aspect: The project will be expensive no matter how it's done. It's also important to remember that the funds will come from DIA revenue rather than taxpayers.
Another reason to believe that there will be a happier conclusion to this project than there was with, say, Steven Holl's never-realized design for the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse (ultimately realized by the Denver firm klipp, with a dramatic design by Keat Tan) is that James Mejia, who helped sabotage the Holl plan while he was the city's project manager for the courthouse undertaking ("Down for the Count," November 2, 2006), will have nothing to do with the DIA proposals.
As part of his visit, Calatrava spoke with the media, and when he talked with me, he dealt with the cost issue head-on, saying that it was no more expensive to build something beautiful than it is to build something that's not. And if you look at the other light-rail stations and bridges, you can see what he means: They are, for the most part, mind-numbingly ugly, and staggering in their aesthetic ineptitude. In fact, I never tire of insulting them to whomever I'm with when I happen upon one.
Now, let's look at what Calatrava has come up with.
First, as travelers approach the airport either by light rail or in cars or buses on Peña Boulevard, they'll come across the bridge. Calatrava proposes a graceful arcing structure with angled suspension cables that will hold up the railbed below. The arch and the footings on either side of the boulevard will be finished in white, a color cue taken from the shade of the Jeppesen tents. For Calatrava, the arched shape represents a gateway, and he sees it as working symbolically for travelers heading both ways. When they are going east toward the terminal, the bridge will function as a symbolic gateway to the airport; when they're going west toward the city, it will welcome visitors to Denver.
Next up is the stunningly beautiful station at the south end of the existing complex. The tracks and platforms are covered at the station's train entrance by a broad and shallow arch that's cantilevered and appears to float over the trains. The leading edge of the arch is cut away at the sides so that the semi-circular form follows a diagonal line like a canopy — which is what it is. The platforms extend out beyond the arched canopy, with the whole station set in a depression in the land that allows the top of the roof vault to come to a level even with the ground on which the Jeppesen, behind it, sits.
Beyond the station is the convention-center portion of the complex, marked by a vertical glass wall. Above and behind that is the hotel, with its entrance marked by another cantilevered canopy serving as a porte cochere for auto traffic. This second canopy mirrors the shape of the one at the station below it. The form of the hotel is quite unusual since the center has been cut away, and the opening is flanked by a pair of seven-story mid-rise blocks. This theatrical feature was clearly generated by both the function of the airport and the power and value of the Jeppesen, which is an internationally recognized symbol of the city. The cut-away allows the blocks to suggest the shape of wings and also allows the distinctive tent structure to be seen through the gap when viewed from the south.
Heading toward the Jeppesen, a continuation of the arched canopy in the front of the hotel shelters an open-air sky plaza in the back. The rounded edge of the canopy slips in just below the bottom of the tent forms. This careful connection between the old and the new is remarkable because Calatrava has created his own distinctive design while being very sensitive to the Jeppesen.
Like the bridge, all of these features will be colored white. Calatrava explains that he could have done his elements in a complementary shade, mentioning gray and blue, but he felt that the relationship between the browns and beiges of the surrounding prairie and the white used for the tents was perfect, and he wanted to replicate that.
"I am not competing with the tents," he told me. "Our building is enframing the tents, so our architecture is working like a frame on a picture. The tents become a thema; the tents are also exalted by our buildings. The tents are working in tension — they are tensile structures — while the arcs are compressive. They are opposites, and together they become a promenade architecturale."
In other words, the tent forms soar into the air while the station and hotel complex push down toward the ground, thus creating a dialogue with one another. (The Denver Post's Ray Mark Rinaldi got it exactly backward in his July 30 piece, which makes sense since he appears to have no qualifications as an architecture writer.)
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One other thing that's gotten confused in discussions of the Calatrava improvements to the airport is the retail portion that would be added to the terminal, a notion that has been controversial. But that idea is part of phase II, which is off on the horizon, while the Calatrava pieces are part of phase I.
Last week was a special time in Denver for people, like me, who love architecture. A few days before the Calatrava presentation, Brad Cloepfil, the head of Allied Works Architecture, unveiled his final design for the Clyfford Still Museum (see Artbeat, page 37). Having a front-row seat for both events, I was struck by the extreme contrast between the two famous architects. Cloepfil's design was good, but the architect reminded me of actor Vince Vaughn: someone with a little talent and a lot of luck. Calatrava, on the other hand, was more like Marlon Brando: a genius who was born to change the face of his medium.
In fact, after spending a little over an hour interviewing Calatrava, I came away overwhelmed by his unbelievable thoughtfulness and stunningly brilliant architectural vision. I've interviewed a lot of architects over the years, but no one has left such a memorable impression on me since I spoke with the late Walter Netsch, the principal designer of the Air Force Academy, over twenty years ago.