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.
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."
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.)
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.
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.
A few years later, the German scientist Martin Heinrich Klaproth observed what seemed to be a new oxide in a specimen of the mineral rutile that had been unearthed in Hungary. Klaproth had heard of Gregor's discovery, and he determined the English sand to be identical to the oxide he had isolated. He didn't think much of Gregor's name for the substance, however, and decided to name the new metallic genus after the sons of the Earth goddess Gaea from Greek mythology.
Still, more than a century would pass before titanium began to be seriously considered for industrial use. General Electric funded research on its use in electric lamps in 1910 but was disappointed with the results. Despite a lack of commercial success, the scientist who conducted that research, Matt Hunter, is recognized as the first person to figure out a way to extract titanium from ore.
Titanium's big breakthrough didn't come until the late 1930s, when another German scientist, William Kroll, invented the process that allowed for the first commercial production of the metal. Kroll fled Germany in 1940 and went to work for Union Carbide at its research laboratories in Niagara Falls, New York. There he perfected the process that is still in use today. The complexity of the manufacturing process is usually blamed for the metal's high cost.
"They need to find a cheaper way to extract it from the ore," says Ken Gall, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It would mark a large technical advance if that process could be improved."
One of Timet's competitors invested millions in a new production process that was supposed to cut costs, says Martin, but it was unsuccessful. Research on cheaper ways to create titanium is under way in Europe, but he isn't expecting any dramatic change.
"There's no breakthrough at hand," Martin says. "There are a lot of obstacles to overcome."
Titanium didn't really take off until the late 1940s. By that time, Kroll was working for the federal Bureau of Mines, which was funding research on new metals. It soon became clear that titanium would have its most useful application in aircraft, and that drew the attention of the military. The Air Force and the Navy were both interested, and a classified 1948 report urged the government to spur the production of titanium as "a potential engineering construction material of great importance."
By then, the metal's mysteries, which had intrigued scientists for years, started to reach the press, and the titanium mystique was born. In 1948, a Saturday Evening Post story about it was headlined "Our Next Magic Metal?" The article was breathless about titanium's potential:
"When flame-spurting space ships someday smash through storms of meteors between the planets, their silvery hulls probably will be fabricated of a rustless metal as strong as the best steel, but only half as heavy. When in the nearer future atomic furnaces generate power for industry, they will be made, according to best predictions, of some alloy of the same metal. From a compound of this metal, scientists already are making precious stones more dazzling than diamonds. This is titanium, Cinderella of the elements."
It was against this backdrop that Timet was formed. The company was founded in 1950 in New York, just as the Cold War spurred a rise in defense spending. Soon there was a rush of companies eager to exploit the miracle metal and win huge military contracts. Household names like Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Monsanto and Union Carbide joined a dozen competitors trying to corner the market on titanium.
"This Cinderella metal seems a heaven-sent answer to the prayers of gold-braided admirals," read the Post story. "There is the prospect of titanium destroyers and submarines, titanium fighters and bombers, titanium transocean passenger planes, and titanium railroad trains."
The 1950s saw the first uses of titanium in aircraft parts. The B-36 bomber was designed to include several hundred pounds of titanium parts. The North American F-86 Sabre Jet was the dominant fighter aircraft during the Korean War, and titanium was used both in its airframe and its engine. In 1953, several U.S. Senate hearings were held on the need for minerals in wartime, and Congress began pressuring manufacturers to create a steady supply of titanium. Senator James Murray of Montana said titanium "is a must if America is to maintain air supremacy."
Aircraft manufacturers realized that titanium could be used in the manufacture of commercial planes as well, and Douglas Aircraft started using titanium parts on the DC-7.
The excitement over titanium soon ran into familiar hurdles. The metal was more difficult to produce than steel and, consequently, more expensive. Many manufacturers dropped their ambitious plans for titanium, and Fortune magazine dubbed it the "mañana metal, for which tomorrow never seems to come." Business Week wrote: "Producers of titanium, the wonder metal, are wondering where the wonder went."
Although titanium never became the metal for everyday use that backers hoped for, it did establish enough of a niche market to sustain regular production over the coming decades. The military was a consistent customer, using titanium in missiles as well as aircraft. In the mid-1960s, Lockheed created the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft, made entirely of titanium. The growth of the airline industry and the development of passenger jets also created a regular demand for titanium.
But this proved to be a mixed blessing. Over the past forty years, titanium producers have endured a series of booms and busts as demand for new aircraft fluctuates. The titanium industry enjoyed record profits in the 1990s as airlines expanded all over the world, but the choice of passenger airliners as a terrorist weapon on September 11 sent the industry into a funk that it may take years to overcome.
"After September 11, they went from full bookings to warehouses full of stuff," says Steve Stocks, a retired executive with Oregon Metallurgical Corporation (OreMet). Stocks ran OreMet's titanium plant in Albany, Oregon, for years.
"It's a boom-and-bust industry. It always has been. It's a very difficult industry to stay profitable in."
During aerospace booms, executives may become overconfident and expand too rapidly. "When you build an addition to a plant, it takes two years, and you may not be able to use it," Stocks says. "It's a very cyclical industry."
Over the years, there has been a series of buyouts and consolidations among titanium producers, he adds. OreMet was bought out by Allegheny Technologies in 1998. There are now only three titanium producers in the United States: Allegheny, RTI International Metals and Timet.
Timet moved its corporate headquarters to Denver in 1990, but its manufacturing operations -- and the bulk of its employees -- are in Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Timet also has extensive operations in Europe.) Much of the titanium produced in the United States comes from the ore rutile, which is often found in high concentrations in beach sand. Timet, for example, imports its rutile from Australia and then processes it at its plant in Henderson, Nevada.
The past six months have been grim ones for the firm. Timet's stock price dropped from just over $10 in early September to $2.35 in the days after the terrorist attacks, and the company's backlog of orders eventually fell from $315 million to $225 million.
"We now expect sales volumes in 2002 to decline 15 percent to 20 percent compared to 2001, driven by reduced commercial aircraft production rates and the effect of excess inventory in the supply chain," Martin wrote in a letter to shareholders. "We expect 2002 sales to range from $375 million to $410 million. Unfortunately, at this level of business, we expect to report a net loss in 2002 between $35 million and $40 million."
Those who know titanium don't expect a turnaround anytime soon.
"I'd say the industry in general is very depressed," says Chris Olin, an analyst who follows the titanium industry for Cleveland-based Midwest Research. "Indications are that demand will weaken through the year."
Olin predicts that titanium sales will be slack for the next two years. He says the industry typically goes through five-year cycles of high use and profits followed by stomach-churning plunges in demand.
Timet does have several things going for it, Olin says. The company doesn't have a lot of debt and has a contract with Boeing that requires the airplane manufacturer to pay at the beginning of a given year for all of the titanium it plans to use that year. This ten-year contract with Boeing was the subject of a lawsuit filed by Timet two years ago, in which the company accused Boeing of trying to evade the agreement by demanding lower prices and the elimination of a requirement for minimum annual purchases. Timet said it would seek damages of $600 million.
Last year, the lawsuit was settled out of court. Timet agreed to hold titanium stocks for Boeing and kept the right to be paid ahead of time. Boeing also won the right to purchase up to 7.5 million pounds of titanium annually from Timet.
Olin believes that titanium could one day break free from its dependence on aerospace, but not soon enough to affect earnings in the short term.
"Titanium has enormous potential for new applications, but the problem continues to be the cost," he says. "I think five years down the road, you'll see more of those uses."
Kurt Faller's job is to put a piece of titanium inside every American's garage.
Faller is the president of Timet Automotive, a new division of the company that is charged with bringing titanium into the automotive mainstream. Based in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, Faller says Timet is determined to win over automakers.
"This is the largest effort in the titanium industry's history to focus on finding automotive uses for titanium," he says.
Titanium has already started to make inroads into the luxury-car market.
The GM Corvette Z06 has a titanium exhaust system, and Volkswagon has installed titanium suspension springs on its Lupo FSI (available only in Europe). Several Ferrari models have titanium connecting rods, as does the Porsche Carrera GT3. Most of these cars retail for more than $60,000.
The appeal is the light weight of the titanium parts. "It's a material that provides a reduction in weight of 45 percent to 50 percent compared to steel parts," says Faller. Using titanium can even allow designers to change the outline of a car, especially when it comes to suspension systems.
"The springy quality of titanium is about half that of steel, so you can reduce the size of the coils by about half," he explains. "The titanium suspension springs can end up weighing just 30 percent of what a steel suspension weighs. We can take twenty to thirty pounds off the weight of a car."
"With a titanium spring, we can lower the hood and go to wider tires," adds Faller. "The designers are using titanium to make the cars look physically different."
Olin thinks titanium can find a place on high-end sports cars, but he thinks the cost will still keep it off more average cars.
"It will be a long time before you see titanium on the Honda Accord," he predicts.
One more immediate bright spot for titanium is the increased demand for deep-sea oil and gas drilling. Titanium works well underwater because of its flexibility and resistance to corrosion.
"As rigs dive deeper, they don't want to use as much steel because of the rigidity," says Olin.
Medical uses of the metal are also growing. Some people are now walking around with titanium inside their bodies.
"We use it in plates for fractures, cardiac stints, hips and knees, and artificial finger joints," says Dr. Ralph Cotton, Timet's director of medical applications. "In dentistry, we use it to put screws in the jawbone to anchor false teeth."
Doctors like titanium because it won't trigger allergic reactions the way other metals can, Cotton adds. "It's ideal, because it's non-corrosive and the body accepts it. It can be implanted without any host reaction."
Titanium's appeal even extends to low-tech homemade items. One Boulder entrepreneur has been successful selling titanium chopsticks. Chuck Lawhead says he came up with the idea at his martial arts school, the Chinese Shao-Lin Center in Boulder.
"In the Shao-Lin art, there's at least one form that uses chopsticks as a weapon," says Lawhead. "My instructor had this idea that it would be interesting to get some metal chopsticks made."
Lawhead works for a company that makes semiconductor supplies, and he talked to some of the machinists at work about manufacturing chopsticks. His martial arts instructor already had a pair of steel chopsticks that had started to rust, and he told Lawhead that he wanted the new ones to be made from titanium. Though skeptical about the cost, Lawhead didn't challenge the idea.
"When somebody is a seventh-degree black belt, you don't question them," he says.
They ended up ordering 150 pairs, which were manufactured locally. At $45 a pair, they sold quickly, mainly to students at the school. Besides using them as weapons, many of the students also eat with them.
"With other metal chopsticks, you can taste the metal," Lawhead says. "The titanium chopsticks are very neutral. They're virtually indestructible and very easy to clean."
After selling out the first batch, Lawhead ordered more. So far, he's sold 400 pairs.
Even though titanium has so many loyalists, it continues to be an outsider in the metal world. Just when it seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough, some new obstacle arises.
Timet created a subsidiary, Tipro, to generate business in the auto-racing world. Racers are drawn to the metal because of its light weight and strength. Custom-built race cars are being made with titanium chassis and drive shafts in garages around the country.
However, some of the sanctioning bodies in various races have restricted the use of titanium, claiming its expense gives those with titanium race cars an unfair advantage. To find out what kind of metal has been used on the cars, the judges often use a magnet. (Titanium is not magnetic.)
Faller says a lot of race teams try to incorporate steel into their cars to disguise their use of titanium.
"We know of some race teams that do their best not to let people know what kind of metal they're using," he says. "They go to great lengths to make the titanium magnetic."
But the first residents of LoDo's Titanium building certainly aren't disguising their choice of metals. Buck Blessing bought a penthouse there, and he says the use of titanium on the exterior lured him.
"What I was attracted to about the building was its high quality," he says. "I think the titanium veneer adds to that impression. It's not inexpensive stuff."
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Blessing is intrigued enough with the metal that he's considering using it on the interior of his unit, which he'll move into in June.
"I may use it on my fireplace flue and on the hood for my stove," he says. "I think titanium is much more attractive than stainless steel. It's a richer, deeper color."
He credits the developers for making a statement with their choice of metals.
"They want it to be first-rate," says Blessing. "That's where the titanium comes in."