On April 22, the city of Denver inaugurated the Denver International Airport Transit Center, a commuter rail terminal that anchors the previously completed Westin hotel. The transit center provides Denver with a key piece of infrastructure (not to mention a signifier of ambition and status) while finally completing a plan that was over 20 years in the making.
In the transit center and associated hotel, Gensler’s steady hand has provided Denver with a handsome, if unexceptional, addition to the airport. Few designs, including Calatrava’s original proposal, could match the tectonic celebration that is the original Fentress Architects–designed terminal. However, Gensler carefully crafted a piece of architecture that is deferential to the unique and timelessly beautiful structure, while humbly presenting its own attractive qualities. From the catenary swoop of the Westin roof to the well-executed structural canopies interpenetrating it, this is a project that aspires to deliver great design in spite of the city’s traditionally conservative approach to architecture.
The transit center suffers from a common problem in Denver projects: an uneven approach to landscape. Denver-based landscape architects Valerian and studioINSITE provided a variety of landscaped spaces, but it seems that only those that are inaccessible and visible from afar are attractive. The crux of the project—the plaza between the new hotel and the existing terminal hall through which passengers pass when moving from the train station to the airport terminal—is a drab beige and lifeless expanse of brick pavers and an insult to the original terminal and the aspirations of this new addition.
A major component was the procurement of a wide variety of public art and its integration with the architectural and landscape design. In most cases, such as Patrick Marold’s Shadow Array, it supplements the design in a harmonious and aesthetically pleasing way. In the grand public plaza, however, Ned Kahn’s kinetic artwork only adds to the lifeless melancholia, making the traveler wish for a patch of swaying greenery, which, ironically, Kahn’s piece is supposed to evoke.
Denver’s new train line is anchored by exceptional architecture on both ends (SOM’s canopy at Union Station is a symphony of structure and simplicity), as well as generally impressive pieces of monumental public art at every station. Yet the project is being used to justify and support the unsustainable suburban sprawl slowly creeping eastward. The city has focused on the financial impact of additional airport hotels and conference centers being developed at the Peña Boulevard station, but one must wonder what value they add to Denver’s culture and what environmental and social debt we have incurred by supporting their construction. Not all commuters and visitors will use transit, and the burdens of commuting weigh unevenly on the most marginalized and financially strained citizens among us.
If the city does intend to stitch together the thirty mile gap between central Denver and the airport with new development, we should aim higher than lifeless beige boxes surrounded by parking lots in spite of the transit line just feet away. Conversely, while central Denver’s Union Station and the adjacent train canopy provide viable anchors for downtown revitalization, they are hemmed in and overpowered by ramparts of beige stucco and cement siding. Marketing materials for both the transit center and Union Station have championed the economic impact of the development they will spur, which is no doubt important, but architecture aspires to be measured by more than function and economic effect.
Just as the design of this new hotel and transit center ignores the spaces that knit the project together with the past, so has Denver ignored the workaday spaces that compose the majority of the city. City government (and, by extension, the voters) seem to believe that no matter how dismal the majority of urban infill is (or how unsustainable development in an empty field is), they can drop a Libeskind, Graves, or Calatrava in the middle of it and somehow lend Denver the cultural and aesthetic capital they feel it should have. The overlooked projects that make up the urban fabric have been so thoroughly neglected—in form and execution and analysis and criticism—that the city lacks the cultural vocabulary necessary to articulate what is off about its built environment. Like many American cities, Denver is struggling with its low zoning density, huge numbers of cars, uncultivated aesthetic standards, and particularly oppressive height restrictions. Projects like Denver International Airport’s Hotel and Transit Center (and the larger FasTracks regional transit initiative) are but the germ of a solution.
One attractive project alone cannot chart a new course for architectural and urban design in the city. Denver is blessed with many of the ingredients necessary for a sophisticated and expressive regional modernism to flourish: a native population that cherishes the city, a steady stream of immigrants, a strong environmental consciousness, plentiful local materials, robust building trades, advanced manufacturing and fabrication, and a unique climate. What the city requires is an elevated discourse around architecture and urbanism that goes beyond a limited number of showcase projects and is fostered by the same degree of cultural investment and education that Denver has put into its public art program and economic development initiatives—the results of which speak for themselves.